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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Printemps (1887 re-orch. by Henri Büsser 1913) [16:17]
Serge RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vesna (Spring) Op. 20 (1902) [16:04]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du printemps (1913) [34:20]
Rodion Pogassov (baritone)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus / Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic
ONYX 4182 [66:53]

A unique and interesting coupling of music makes this an appealing proposition for a disc. All three works are easily available, although usually as part of programme featuring each individual composer. Onyx's idea is to take three works, all nominally musical responses to Spring and all written (or in the case of the Debussy reconstructed) within just over a decade from 1902 to 1913.

The highlights of this disc are the very high quality of the playing from all sections of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra—which is revealed in all its considerable skill—and glory by the excellent production and engineering by Andrew Cornall and Philip Siney respectively. The disc opens with the 1913 reconstruction for orchestra by Henri Büsser (supervised by Debussy) of a lost work for chorus and orchestra from 1887. There is an edition of the original work which I have not heard. As the orchestral version stands, it is a fascinating amalgam of semi-digested Wagnerian influences as well as unmistakeable fingerprints of the mature composer. How much of that is due to 1913 re-workings I do not know. In its own right I have always found this to be a wholly enjoyable, gently ecstatic work well worth knowing. Petrenko's performance is very impressive, sensual and languorous—the opening dreaming flute solo beautifully played here and an unmistakable pre-echo of the L'après-midi yet to come. Possibly the version on Chandos by Stéphane Denève shades Petrenko in terms of subtle nuance and that elusive ebb and flow which is so central to the Debussian aesthetic. But in isolation this is a fine version, with Petrenko building to an excitingly exultant final climax.

Next on the disc is relatively the rarest work offered here: Rachmaninov's brief cantata Vesna (Spring) from 1902. This was the composer's first work for chorus and orchestra. It sets a poem by Nikolay Nekrasov in which a peasant—idiomatically sung here by baritone Rodion Pogassov—spends the bitter winter plotting to murder his faithless wife. However, the joyful arrival of Spring in all its glory mollifies him. At just over sixteen minutes, Rachmaninov packs in a lot of mood and atmosphere, and again the orchestra in particular impresses with the range and power of their playing. No real surprise, given how much Rachmaninov the conductor and orchestra have recorded, that they have the style of this music down to perfection. In comparison to all the other versions I know, Petrenko is somewhat quicker across the whole work—a full two minutes swifter than the Svetlanov recording. Svetlanov manages to make the orchestral opening darker, more oppressive than Petrenko. The major disappointment on this new disc is the rather polite and slightly backwardly balanced singing of the RLPO chorus. At the three minute mark the chorus enter with the line "Green rushing tides, the tides of Spring" which is rather under-characterised here. It is not just a case of the sound of the English chorus but also the balance. Svetlanov's choir have an unmistakeably slavic timbre and the choral balance is more to the centre of the ensemble with real clout from the men's voices in particular. Not that non-Russian choirs cannot sing this successfully. The St. Louis chorus under Leonard Slatkin in 1980 are weightier than their Liverpool counterparts, as are the Danish National Radio Choir for Dmitri Kitajenko on Chandos. Overall, as an interpretation I like the way Petrenko keeps the music driving forward; Kitajenko, only a minute slower, somehow does not maintain Petrenko's momentum. Fine though Pogassov is for Petrenko, the stand-out performance for Kitajenko is the highly engaged and dramatic contribution by the great Jorma Hynninen. What he may lack in terms of authentic sound and bite, you really do believe this is husband set on a murderous path. It is worth seeking out that recording to hear Hynninen's contribution.

The final work is probably the reason most collectors have purchased the disc: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. This work holds few if any terrors for modern orchestras and indeed so it proves here. In fact, it is the very lack of terror that lets down this performance. Again, the orchestra play with superb precision, all tellingly revealed by the fine Onyx recording. I would go as far as saying this is one of the most accurately played versions of this complex work I have heard. The trombones delight in their snarling glissandi. It is wonderful to hear the complex chattering horn writing in the Danse de la terre, and the solo winds are brilliant or sensuous as required. I particularly enjoyed the alto flute in the Mystic circles of the young girls.

No single section is wildly faster than other versions I know, but in nearly every instance Petrenko has chosen a tempo that sits at the faster end of the standard range. Cumulatively across the whole work this makes for a Rite that feels fast. The effect of this is to emphasise the considerable virtuosity of the work but at the cost of atmosphere and drama. The sense of ritual, the inevitability of the impending chosen one's death is, pardon the pun, sacrificed to the cause of brilliance and effect. Petrenko chooses tempi that underplay the weighty ritual, the heavy stamping grounded thud of the shamanesque mother drums. Often, with ballet music in the concert hall there is the debate about the use of "tempi suitable for dancing". It is a discussion that is rarely used regarding this particular work but for the first time ever I did find myself thinking that this was simply too unrelentingly fast for dance. To be fair, I have not sat down and checked all the tempi here against the metronome markings in the score but it feels too quick to me. The total timing for the work is around 34:20 which is not unusual at all, but this is because Petrenko chooses quite (effectively) static tempi for slow sections of the score which are then compensated for by quick tempi elsewhere. An example is the closing Danse sacrale. I recently reviewed David Robertson's recording; he takes 5:42 compared to Petrenko 4:27. Likewise Rattle is 5:00, although to be fair Stravinsky's own Columbia recording is 4:35. So it is not that Petrenko is hugely faster at any given moment, just that the resultant impression is of speed. If a swift, superbly slick and well-recorded version of this remarkable score appeals, this might well be the version for you.

I find Onyx's preferred presentation of their CDs to be poor in the extreme. No texts or artist biographies are provided in the booklet—they are available online. However, I do not wish to have to sit in front of a computer screen or squint at a smartphone to follow texts when listening to music. I cannot imagine that the extra cost of including these in the booklet is prohibitive. The booklet does not include any track listing—this is printed only on the back cover of the jewel case in small darker green print on a lighter green background—and the timing for the first section of The Rite is omitted. The edition used for the Stravinsky (one assumes the 1947 revision) is nowhere mentioned. Daniel Jaffé's liner note is interesting in what it says but too brief. It gives no musical insight into any of the works, simply a historical context in which they were written. He also makes a rather glib comment about the inspiration of Spring to composers through the ages, including, to my surprise, Tchaikovsky in Sleeping Beauty. Now if there is a brief dance by a Spring fairy or some-such in that work it has eluded me to date and it is far from central to the ballet in any case. Given Britten's Spring Symphony or Glazunov's Spring symphonic poem, or indeed his ballet The Seasons, there are many more explicit examples. And in any case Jaffé undermines this argument himself by pointing out that Debussy's inspiration was the human "rebirth to a new life" rather than anything explicitly seasonal.

So in some ways it is a slightly curious and ultimately disappointing disc. The stature and calibre of the RLPO is reinforced. The Debussy is wholly successful even if it does not go to quite the top of the pile. The Rachmaninov is orchestrally exciting but let down by rather grey choral singing. The biggest disappointment is the work for which I had the highest hopes; rather surprisingly Petrenko proves to be an unsubtle and rather driven interpreter of The Rite. Any number of existing performances of this seminal work embody the elemental essence of this remarkable score to greater effect than here.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)

 

 




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