Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring is both a definitive Stravinsky masterwork, and a one-off: the score deploys by far the largest orchestra that he was ever to use. So the physical impact here of maximum Berlin Philharmonic firepower is part of what the music itself calls for. As in his 1989 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) recording, conductor Simon Rattle unleashes full-tilt tempos where the score says (for instance, Part I’s concluding ‘Danse de la terre’). Elsewhere his refusal to rush remains as convincing as ever: the approach to the final ‘Danse sacrale’ builds a formidable level of tension, while the feast of accurate detail emerging from the swirling woodwind ‘Introduction’ puts down a marker for what follows. Time and again, you catch yourself noticing a chord or phrase balanced in what sounds like an unfamiliar way and it turns out to be precisely what Stravinsky had written.
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) also succeeds memorably for a different reason: the score’s built-in austerity is more than enough to offset any excess Berlin sumptuousness, so that the outcome here is as gravely beautiful as you’ll hear. The downside of the Berlin compulsion to non-stop lustre comes in the strings-only world of Apollon musagète (heard here in its 1947 revised version). The sound is gorgeous in its own terms – though rather misplaced in relation to the ‘new classicism’ of Stravinsky’s ballet, where the stylised reference is to the Baroque dances of Lully, not to the glowing late-Romanticism of, say, Richard Strauss. Compared to the clotted-cream sonorities in evidence here, Rattle’s CBSO recording is far truer to the music’s poised incisiveness and grace. But his new reading of The Rite of Spring with the Berlin Philharmonic is a formidable achievement.