Jeremy Lee writes
This 2CD package from Tower Records Vintage Collection contains some of the greatest performances of Stravinsky’s ballets ever recorded. This should be interesting because back in 1973 Haitink recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra these very pieces, which were some of the worst performances of Stravinsky’s ballets ever recorded. Recorded in dull, fuzzy sound, and played with the panache, bravura and commitment that one would devote to a lazy afternoon nap, they were sleepwalks through some of the most striking and violent pieces the world has ever seen. I’ve read Jane Austen novels that were more viscerally exciting. They have been reissued in various guises–International Eloquence, Decca/Philips Duo and so on–avoid all of them.
Pray compare those dreary approximations of a performance with these given around two decades later. The Rite of Spring, the worst performance of the 1973 lot, is given a tremendously dramatic, alert and edgy reading. The almost too sweet introduction, revealing an extraordinary amount of melodic and coloristic detail (observe the woodwind lines which entangle each other in an intricate tapestry of acerbic sound), gives way to a refreshingly savage Les Augures printaniers, horns prominently rasping through each downbeat and offbeat. The lower brass, usually a weak point with the Berlin Philharmonic, blasts their way through the Jeux de cités rivales, and Haitink imbues the Dance of the Earth with just the right amount of forward momentum so that at the very end the orchestra sounds like it’s on fire. The second part heightens the drama further–observe the incisive trumpets and horns in Glorification de l’Elue, the verve of the solo playing in the Ritual Action, to say nothing of the precision and ferocity the players deliver in the final Sacrificial Dance. Observing the roster of Rite of Springs recorded with this orchestra (Karajan twice, and most recently Rattle), it’s amazing how the precious beauty and non-savagery of those recordings is completely refuted by Haitink’s traversal here. Sure, the excellence of the playing is astonishing as always, but Haitink’s encouragement of the Berlin players to make an uncharacteristically raw, ugly sound (something Maazel similarly achieved with the Vienna Philharmonic in their all-but-forgotten 1974 recording on Decca) is in itself something to be congratulated for.
Now put on the Firebird (1910 ballet version, not the suites), on the same disc as the Rite, and marvel at the sheer excellence of the woodwind playing, be it in the Appearance of the Firebird, Dance of the Firebird, or the Princess’s Game with the Golden Apples–maybe Colin Davis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra may have a similar trait, but Haitink beats Davis in the sections that require more drama, such as the Infernal Dance and the Death of Kastchei, with gullotine-precise rhythms and a healthy prominence of brass. It reaches its magnificent apotheosis in a second tableau that, while lacking the overwhelming lushness and grandeur of Giulini, amazes with a good dose of physicality and some brilliant brass playing.
Disc two opens with a fascinating Petrushka, featuring once again marvelous winds, delivering their lines with flair and joie du vivre, but this time the strings and percussion seem to have been affected by the piece’s good humor and occasional sarcasm as well, and respond with vibrant playing that sounds unusually relaxed and free (the strings in particular achieve a beautiful balance of lushness and transparency). The solo playing here (from the flute, trumpet, English Horn, bassoon, piano, tuba, etc.) is also some of the best I’ve heard. While there’s nothing groundbreaking or revelatory about Haitink’s interpretation, there’s no question that he’s enjoying himself, reveling in the music’s wit, pithiness and dance-like character, without turning unfocused or stodgy for a single moment. Following is the neoclassical ballet Pulcinella, interpreted with elegance, delicateness and poise, and as always the woodwind playing is fabulous. Maybe Haitink is a bit stiff in the Tarantella, compared to the lively and brisk Chailly, but Haitink has, with Olga Borodina, John Mark Ainsley and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, the better soloists. A bumptious and peppy Scherzo à la Russe concludes this set.
You might be asking why I bothered to spill so much (digital) ink on an album that is pretty much unobtainable. That’s because the performances on this pair of discs has impressed me exceedingly, not only because of their dramatic intensity, glorious playing and sumptuous, crystal-clear sonics, but also because it shows Haitink as an artist who is willing to rethink his approach to the music he has conducted and present them with even more conviction and authority than the previous go at it (not all his remakes display this characteristic). In this case Haitink has succeeded outstandingly, and I can only say that, if by some kind of miracle Universal reissues this album internationally, a) buy it and hear it immediately, and b) you read it here first, folks!
- Album name: Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; L’Oiseau de feu; Pétrouchka; Pulcinella; Scherzo à la Russe
- Performers: Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (bass) [Pulcinella]; Bernard Haitink (conductor); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: Tower Records Vintage Collection PROA-162/3
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 1:37:39