Tuesday 12 February 2013

CD Review - Rite of Spring - Tugan Sokhiev

Tugan Sokhieve, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse - Stravinsky - The Firebird, Rite of Spring
The revolutionary nature of the Rite of Spring's premiere in 1913  meant that by the time Diaghilev came to revive the ballet, no-one could remember Nijinsky's choreography and it was re-done by Leonid Massine. Choreographers from each generation have felt the need to attempt this Everest and re-shape the work in their own image. This means that though Rite of Spring does have a continuous history of stage performance, unlike other major Diaghilev scores like Jeux and Daphnis and Chloe, it was always being continuous reinvented so that no standard dance version of the piece developed. Whereas a conductor can perform Swan Lake and be chid for not performing it as if it could be danced, this does not happen with Rite of Spring. It is performed as an orchestral showpiece divorced from its stage life.

The important early recordings of the work are those of Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet and Stravinsky himself. Monteux conducted the premiere but there is a suggestion that even in the 1950's he struggled with the work. Ansermet had an important relationship with Diaghilev's Ballet Russes (from 1915 to 1923) so his recording of Rite of Spring is an important link with them.  Stravinsky was notoriously scathing about the premiere of the piece, and of Nijinsky's choreography. So his own recording probably hardly reflects the works dance origins. Stravinsky does not, however, neglect the work's dramatic origins, his performance is notable for the profound violence.

Incidentally, Stravinsky's original orchestration for Rite of Spring was never published and all that is in print is his revised, post First World War version. It would be interesting, I think, to be able to revisit that original version on CD.

These thoughts came to me whilst listening to this new recording of Rite of Spring by Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestra National du Capitole de Toulouse because the performance seems so orchestrally based, with a strong feeling for clarity and texture. This is not a simple question of speed, the overall length of Sokhiev's performance is 33:14 and Simon Rattle's is 34:54, Pierre Boulez takes 33:29 and Esa-Pekka Salonen takes 32.12. If we look at the crucial final movement, then Sokhiev takes 4:32, Dorati and Stravinsky take 4:34, Rattle 5:00, Haitink takes 4:55. For the opening sections of the work Sokhiev is slower than Stravinsky and faster than Rattle.

Sokhiev has been music director of Orchestra Nationale du Capitole de Toulouse since 2010 and has been associated with the orchestra as guest conductor since 2008 so clearly it is very much his orchestra and he clearly carries the orchestra with him in this performance, which is technically very strong.

Despite the apparent parity of speeds, Sokhiev takes quite a relaxed view of the work within this tempo. The virtues of the recording are the clarity of line and texture, the way that details are audible. the opening of part two is played on a thread of sound with great transparency, but with a real mystical feel.

There are other moments in the score where Sokhiev seems a little too concerned for orchestral beauty, though there is some fine instrumental playing from the orchestra, notably the wind. In fact the famous bassoon solo at the opening of the work suffers, as on most modern recordings, from the extreme technical facility of the player. It just doesn't sound strained enough, too beautiful (perhaps we should try playing it on a double-bassoon instead!).

Sokhiev has a good grasp of the work's structure, so that the slow build in the Jeu de Rapt, and the gradually tightening of the screw in Rondes Pritanieres work very well. But I did not find his conclusion to part one, Danse de la terre, quite vigorous enough.

As part two develops, you feel that he is firmly in control with a nice feeling of discipline. And here's the problem, early recordings have a feeling of danger simply because of the way the players felt they were on the edge of the possible With greater technical facility comes ease. Boulez in his recording develops this into whip-cracking precision. Sokhiev seems more concerned with beauty, clarity and texture. Quite simply at key moments such as the final Danse Sacrale I wanted a greater feeling of letting go, of savagery.

Ultimately the final section of the work is about a young woman dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to the Gods. Any performance has to reflect this and, whilst not everyone will conjure up Stravinsky's intense savagery, Sokhiev seems just that bit too calm, too relaxed.

The pairing is the 1919 Firebird Suite though I did rather wish we could have had the complete ballet. Again there are some lovely instrumental contributions and highly characterful playing. Sokhiev's tempi are flexible, could you dance to his Ronde des Princesses I wondered? The quiet opening of the suite is simply magical, and there is a nice sweep to the Berceuse.

The booklet is a little coy about exactly what we are hearing. The Firebird is dated 1919, the sole clue besides the list of movements, that it is the suite. But the booklet gives the complete plot of the ballet, along with an introduction to the revolutionary nature of the The Rite of Spring at its premiere.

The set comes with a DVD of a concert performance recorded live in Toulouse in 2011. This is a nice straightforward film of a concert without any attempts at visual gimmickry. Judging by the response  at the end, the performance extremely well received by the live audience.

The set comes handsomely packaged. Sophie Chaussade has produced some stunning illustrations for both works, over 15 images in all. They illustrate both stories and this would be a very fine present for someone new to the works.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) - The Firebird (1919 suite)  [21.49]
Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) - Rite of Spring (complete ballet) [33.14]
Orchestra National du Capitole de Toulouse
Tugan Sokhiev (conductor)
CD recorded in September 2011 at La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse
DVD filmed by Jean-Pierre Loisil on 17 September 2011 at La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse

naive V5192 1 CD + 1DVD [55.00, 37.00]

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