Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918
Serge RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
Le Sacre du printemps [34:29]
Rodion Pogassov (baritone)
Royal Liverpool PO & Ch/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
ONYX 4182 [66:51]
Brian Wilson made this one of his recordings of the year for 2017, and if I’d heard it sooner then I would have agreed. There has been a riot of Rites recently, with newcomers including the one from Simon Rattle at the LSO, and it’s not long since highly impressive versions from Toulouse and from Les Siècles. Even in that esteemed company, however, this one is pretty special.
Vasily Petrenko has turned Merseyside into the most reliable location on these shores for Russian music, and his recordings of symphony cycles by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky have been world-beaters. This Rite of Spring is too. The best thing about it is that it is so fantastically clean! The driving, thrusting force of the rhythm can’t have sounded so good since Rattle’s first recording in Birmingham, and that's high praise. The Augurs, for example, are absolutely on the beat, with even a dash of daylight in between them, making them sound all the more exciting and eternally new, while the slithering of the Spring Rounds is even more insidious and creepy than normal. The shuddering semiquavers at the end of the Dance of the Earth can seldom have sounded so individually articulated (breathtakingly so, in places!) as here, and the Glorification of the Chosen One will make your hair stand on end. The climax comes with the Sacrificial Dance, whose jarring, thrusting cross-rhythms sound as clean as a whistle, without the slightest hint of aural fog, and Petrenko takes the whole thing at a much faster pace than I think I’ve ever heard it. It shouldn’t work, it should fall apart in chaos; but it’s a testament to the musicianship and skill of all concerned that it not only holds together but coheres thrillingly into the most devastatingly climactic ending to The Rite that I think I’ve ever heard.
Add to that the orchestral playing, which is completely virtuosic throughout, and even pretty seductive in places, such as the interweaving wind lines of the opening, or the opening of Part Two - the composer’s “Polar night” - which sounds like the music to a Science Fiction film. Furthermore, the Onyx engineers have outdone themselves in the recording quality, which is bright as a button, illuminating the textures from within and allowing everything to come to the ear afresh. That’s true in flashes of individuality such as the weedy string sound in the Mystic Circles or the subtlety of the percussion effects in the Ritual Dance of the Ancestors, but it’s also tremendously effective in capturing the building sense of a climax - or threat, even - in passages like the Procession of the Sage or the Dance of the Earth.
The other items on this Spring-themed disc are very fine fillers, and if they take a very definite second place to The Rite then they’re none the less successful in their own right. Debussy’s Printemps is seductive and suggestive: in other words, it’s at the impressionistic opposite end of the musical scale to The Rite, which makes it all the more remarkable that it works so well here. Likewise, Rachmaninov’s Spring, his first major choral work, is a shimmering depiction of Winter giving way to Spring, finding a parallel in a peasant’s forgiveness of his faithless wife. The RLPO Chorus and baritone Rodion Pogassov sound very good. It’s only a shame that there are no texts in the booklet: would that really have been too much to ask? The booklet claims that they’re available on the Onyx website, but if they are then I can’t find them.
That’s a mere fly in the ointment, though. Buy this for the best Rite of Spring in years, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s of slightly short duration for full price, but it’s still worth every penny.