Jeremy Lee writes
It’s interesting how many boring, all-too-civilized Rite of Springs there are out there, from the dour dutifulness of Haitink/LPO to the over-polished Boulez/DG, a “Rite for a Fashion Victim” as Gramophone would have put it. Therefore it’s most refreshing to hear a recording that allows all the gory bits of Stravinsky’s timeless ballet to leap out of the speakers, and Muti’s definitely is one.
Muti’s pacing is generally quite speedy, and he uses this speed very wisely. For one, he utilizes it to amplify the carnal aspects of the score, and thus he never shies away from the sheer savagery and ferocity of the dance numbers: the dances at the very ends of both parts are jaw-droppingly visceral, and they really give other great readings (Bernstein/Sony, Barenboim/Teldec) a run for their money. Also, with the speed he takes, he prevents those less bestial moments from sounding unduly ceremonious or reverent (eg. Spring Rounds in Part I), and instead revels in the jarring dissonances. This is virile, direct music-making, a Rite guaranteed to make the hair at the back of your neck stand up throughout the whole piece and kick you hard in the gut when needed.
Petrushka, too, is an often misrepresented piece, but here Muti gives us a really colorful and vivacious performance. Rarely has Part I sounded better: the section where the dancer plays the triangle, in particular, has not been presented more wittily in my opinion. The tricky changes in meter are handled seamlessly, and the final Russian Dance is as lively as one could ever wish for. The rather silly (in a good way) Part III could almost make you laugh out loud, with the bassoons observing the indication “grotesco” to the nth degree. And of course, Part IV packs a great wallop, and the way the music disintegrates at the very end under Muti’s hands almost makes you sympathize Petrushka’s demise.
But I suppose the star of the show is the Philadelphia Orchestra. It has always been an impressive ensemble during its golden years under Ormandy (especially the 1970s), and many guest conductors were able to bring out the best from the musicians: Levine’s Mahler 5 and 9 is a good case in point. Muti (who recorded these pieces during the period of time he was about to take over) seemingly has a great rapport with the musicians and they respond to his direction with perfect precision and tons of commitment. The brass and percussion pack a big punch while the strings sound quite lustrous. A fault you could possibly pick out in Levine’s Philadelphia Mahler was the brash brass playing; in these Stravinsky recordings it actually enhances the music and Muti’s conception. Even the shrill, coarse EMI sonics (analog for Rite, early digital for Petrushka) sound quite similar to that RCA gave to Levine, but while it detracted from the latter, it makes the former sound even grislier than it may have sounded in person.
All told, these are hugely intense, hugely exciting, hugely involving performances of two Stravinskian classics, and the budget price is only a bonus. Essential.
- Album name: Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Petrouchka
- Performers: Riccardo Muti (conductor); Philadelphia Orchestra
- Label: EMI 50999 208762 2 7
- Sonics: Stereo ADD/DDD
- Total playing time: 66:25