WORKS: Pictures at an ExhibitionStravinsky; The Rite of Spring
PERFORMER: MET Orchestra/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 437 531-2 DDD
Pictures at an Exhibition and The Rite of Spring make an intriguing coupling. When the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan recorded the two together in the Sixties, Stravinsky doubted that the orchestra could happily accommodate what he saw as different traditions. Yet there is an opposite case, implicitly made here by Levine and the MET Orchestra, which sees a continuity between Mussorgsky’s and Stravinsky’s musical tableaux: both tap into an idea of a pre-literate Russia; they share a certain emotional detachment, for all The Rite’s kinetic fury; and one can perhaps detect something of Stravinsky’s rhythmic audaciousness in the ‘Gnomus’ and ‘Baba-Yaga’ sections of Pictures.
Levine’s approach to both works is typically warm and expansive: this is a showcase recording for the MET Orchestra, and Levine gives the players ample space to demonstrate their prowess, with Ravel’s resplendent orchestration of Pictures a fitting vehicle. Levine also draws out the rich melodic idiom of The Rite of Spring, to such an extent that one wonders what that famous Parisian audience in 1913 found so horrifying. But perhaps that’s to miss the point of the work, and anyone nostalgic for some real iconoclasm would be better seeking out the composer’s own 1960 recording, brutal and sardonic, with the Columbia SO. William Humphreys-Jones