Indispensable Rite of Spring Recordings to Add to Your Collection, Part 3 (2006 and beyond!)

by James Chang – This is a continuation a series in Rite of Spring recordings, which includes an introduction, explanation of criteria (execution, engineering, interpretation), and six recordings from 1958 to 1997.  Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of this series too! Here are the last recordings, including an honorable mention section!

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic, 2006

[Couldn’t find a stream of this particular recording, sorry]

When the bass drum first came in, the whole floor shook. Actually, every time. Ooooooh man.

In terms of bass drum captures, this one joins Chailly’s as one of the best of all time.  Almost to a fault – it’s almost as if the bass drum is physically larger than the rest of the darn orchestra. Not necessarily a bad thing ….. 🙂

Then you have to pair that with the fact that this is actually a super well-executed recording all around.  The balancing is nearly perfect all around, and everything can be heard quite clearly, and I’m hearing things for the first time in this recording that I didn’t hear in other recordings. The definition in this recording is great, and, at least in this list, unprecedented. By now, no professional orchestra is a stranger to playing this piece well, and the LAPhil is certainly not an exception in that regard.

Because of how well captured the bass drum and guero are, this recording tops the list for best presentation of the polyrhythm section (when the whole orchestra is in 6/4 but the percussion are in 2/2 and the winds/brass are essentially in hemiola 4/4 with 2’s against 3’s against 4’s against 6’s, at the end of the Procession of the Sage).

Despite Esa-Pekka Salonen’s popularity as a dynamic conductor, I find this recording a little disappointing in that regard. Make no mistake, this is still a great recording, and the interpretation is far from sluggish or unexciting, but it does not necessarily compare favorably to some of the earlier recordings like Bernstein’s 1958.  In an age where perfection is the norm for classical music performances, intensity is often sacrificed for cleanliness and control.  This is a different discussion all together, but one can feel that this is the case for this recording.  Additionally, he does a couple of strange things, like the final note of the Dance of the Earth (it makes some sense, I guess, but I’m not sure I personally agree with it).  Most of the tempos are still very exciting though, especially the Sacrificial Dance, and the musicians accomplish it beautifully (barring a couple of minor misentrances!) A lot of this is of course made up for by the freaking amazing bass drum. So intense!

Really, the Sacrificial Dance is the most amazing part of this recording.

  • Execution: 9.5/10 – professional!
  • Engineering: 9.5/10 – holy bass drum, Batman!
  • Interpretation: 9/10 – great, but not amazing

Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, 2010

I don’t even know where to start for this one.  This was such an explosive and fresh recording. While I was listening through all the more recent recordings I had, this one stuck out and shined. The Dude just made me go “Dude…. DUDE!!!” I’ll try not to fanboy over Dudamel or the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra toooo much here.

This is an extremely dynamic recording, and it hearkens back to Bernstein and Ozawa’s recordings from part 1 of this series.  The tempi are fast, and there is so much energy and risk-taking.  In an age where people who perform this are expected to play it well and cleanly, this is refreshing.  It’s not 100% clean but who cares, given all the electricity crackling in the air and the fact that it’s a youth orchestra after all.

This piece is basically as new to these people as it was to professionals in the 50s, but they are held to a higher standard of perfection/playing and great engineering to help out. Engineering’s not as great as some other recordings but it’s still great, but I still heard new things that I hadn’t heard before.  In essence, this is definitely Bernstein’s 1958, except cleaner and better recorded and with more youthful vigor/energy.

The siiiick Spring Rounds tutti. The intense crescendo at the end of the Procession of the Sage, along with the groove that they were REALLY feeling. The chill-inducing and adrenaline-loaded Dance of the Earth. The cannon-like sound of the 11/4 bar before the Glorification. The balls-to-the-wall volcanic percussion playing (they sound like they are having a ball, all just whacking away at their instruments).

There are so many amazing qualities to this recording, it’s amazing. Clearly the interpretation and the engineering favors the percussion, which is perhaps wise for a piece like this. The engineering itself is great too, with a very nicely present bass drum that actually sounds like it’s part of the section

Besides the not-100% clean thing, there are also a couple of mistakes that are known printed errors that I noticed (tsk tsk, there really is no excuse for not using a corrected score and parts in this day and age), and Dudamel makes a couple of weird interpretive decisions with things, like striking the cymbals in the Ritual Action instead of crashing them together, or having very smooth bassoons in the Evocation, but somehow it works. I think he understands this piece well.

Fantastic playing. I cannot believe that the SBYOV is this amazing, given the demographic (young musicians who came from unprivileged backgrounds). Holy crap. [The other piece on this album, Silvestre Revueltas’ La noche de los mayas, is also astounding, and is really a cool, under-performed piece to check out.]

I wonder what Stravinsky would’ve thought if he heard this, a ragtag group of young musicians pouring their energy into this piece. I bet he would’ve said “Wow!” again. There were definitely a few times when I involuntarily let out an audible noise of admiration.

  • Execution: 9/10 – not clean, but damn it, they’re still amazing
  • Engineering: 9/10 – percussion-centric, with some nice blend, but not completely clear
  • Interpretation: 9.5/10 – Dudamel understands this piece, and I feel like so do the musicians

Honorable Mentions:

Here are some recordings that deserve some honorable mention because they’re really good still (just not good enough) or because they’re interesting.

  • There is, of course, Stravinsky’s own recordings from 1929, 1940, and 1960.  Stravinsky was not a good conductor.
  • The first recording ever made, by the same person who conducted the premiere in 1913, Pierre Monteux. This recording was made right before Stravinsky made his own. I guess there was some sort of race to the first recording.
  • An attempt to reconstruct the original performance with period instruments, based on a recently released manuscript (although this isn’t the score used for the premiere, but for the 1920s revival)
  • Pierre Boulez’s video with the LSO from 1993 – because this is the first recording I had, and the only one for a long time. I used to listen to this recording at least once a day for a year…. It’s really a very good recording!
  • Eastman Sax Project does the whole piece for sax ensemble and percussion, FROM MEMORY and WITHOUT a conductor!
  • A very interesting recording by Fazil Say featuring just one piano, one pianist, and god knows how many simultaneous tracks. He also throws in some interesting extended techniques. This short video has a nice artistic way of presenting what he did.
  • The premiere (or is it?) recording of the duet reduction, as performed by a young Michael Tilson Thomas with Ralph Grierson. They also do some multitracking but only for ossias. (MTT rerecorded this with Lenny B later in 1981)
  • Stravinsky’s piano rolls from 1921 realized in 1990 by Rex Lawson
  • The fastest coda I’ve heard by Ben Zander and Boston Philharmonic, 1990
  • Arrangement by Maarten Bon for the Amsterdam Piano Quartet (sadly only the first half is on YouTube)

Recordings I have yet to listen to but want to check out:

  • Evgeni Svetlanov / USSR Symphony Orchestra (1966) [This one sounds pretty savage too]
  • Antal Dorati / Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1981)
  • Yoel Levi / Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (1992) [It’s a Telarc!]
  • Paavo Järvi / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (2004)
  • Alan Gilbert / New York Philharmonic (2012)
  • Simon Rattle / Berliner Philharmoniker (2013)

Maybe some day I will come back and redo this list after having listened to these.

Do you have a favorite recording not mentioned here that you think should be included in everyone’s collections? Drop me a line at kongming819 {at} gmail, and I’ll take a listen!

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