49 Recordings of Le Sacre du printemps

by Sedgwick Clark

It may seem unnecessary to audition and report on 49 recordings of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) since 38 of them can be obtained only in a single set from Decca and another 10 from the Columbia and RCA catalogues in a set from Sony Classical. But if fellow Stravinskyites relish my Sacre orgy, they might be persuaded to acquire these sets too and have an equally pleasurable wallow. In a day when any professional orchestra can whiz through the piece without blinking, it’s fascinating to hear the oldest recordings and realize how daunting Le Sacre once was.

My preferred recordings in these sets are listed below, in order of preference.

Clark’s Top 6

• Columbia Symphony/Igor Stravinsky (1960; 31:35). Sony

• Boston Symphony/Pierre Monteux (1951; 31:25). Sony

• Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (1969; 34:34). Sony

• Boston Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (1972; 34:00). Decca

• Chicago Symphony/Georg Solti (1974; 32:12). Decca

• Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink (1995; 32:48). Philips


Sony Classical’s Centennial Releases of The Rite of Spring   

Igor Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps – 100th Anniversary Collection – 10 CDs

CD 1

Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1929/1930). Shocking! In our day of recorded perfection, it’s difficult to say which of Le Sacre’s first three recordings, is the worst played: Monteux, Stravinsky, or this Stokowski, all recorded within a year of each other. RCA’s 78s are more vivid sonically than this CD or any LP transfer I’ve heard—enough so that a recent spot check revealed the kind of sensuous details that separated him from nearly every conductor of the 20th century, and which I never noticed before. I’m glad Sony included it, but non-collectors may find listening a chore. (32:39)

CD 2

New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky (1940). A very tight reading. One wishes he would relax a little and invest the music with more expressiveness at times, but the New Yorkers do well by the score, with only occasional imprecision, until they stumble over the rhythmic complexity of the concluding Danse sacrale. Still, it’s a huge improvement over his 1929 Paris recording. The 78s have notably more presence and tonal warmth. The recording date, by the way, is April 29, 1940, not April 4, as the back of the package states. (30:45)

CD 3

Boston Symphony/Pierre Monteux (1951). Monteux conducted the infamous first performance of Le Sacre. He made four recordings, and this is far and away his best. The BSO players seem to be playing on the edge of their seats with commitment, and a few scrappy moments—most in the Danse sacrale—hardly detract from this great, well-recorded performance. (31:35)

CD 4

Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (1955). Ormandy reportedly maintained that he never conducted Le Sacre. It certainly isn’t his piece. Timpani are muffled throughout, and woodwind details are often obscured by Philly’s glamorous strings. This is its first release on CD, sounding rather dim from what I take to be its LP work tape rather than the master source. Too bad Sony didn’t include Ormandy’s Petrushka Suite from the LP, which is more his style. (29:49)

CD 5

Columbia Symphony/Igor Stravinsky (1960). The composer’s stereo recording of Le Sacre (as well as his 1940 mono recording with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, which is only 50 seconds shorter) has unrivalled rhythmic accentuation, clarity, and balletic character. There are more exciting, splashily recorded versions, but this performance simply feels “right.” (31:35)

 CD 6

Chicago Symphony/Seiji Ozawa (1968). I was at Ravinia, the CSO’s summer home, for the concert preceding the recording session. It was exciting then and it is now, even if the performance style is somewhat generalized. But it’s superbly played, and a sad reminder of the promise Ozawa had that was never quite fulfilled. He tightens the pace at the end as Monteux did, no less effectively. (32:46) Fireworks from the original LP is included first, as before.

CD 7

Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (1969). The French conductor’s 1963 Paris recording was fast, fiery, and on its toes. But he came to feel, he said to me in an interview, that such febrile tempos trivialized the work. This Cleveland performance can seem a bit earthbound at times, but following the score reveals all sorts of details that other conductors gloss over and that Boulez reveals without calling attention to them, such as the three accented trumpet notes on page 31 that so many treat indifferently (but not Ormandy!). The players are at their best, and the recording is the utmost in clarity. (34:34)

CD 8

London Symphony/Leonard Bernstein (1972). The best thing about this Sacre is the faux Rousseau, pop art cover. It’s a surprisingly tepid Sacre from this most un-tepid conductor. Originally recorded for quad by producer John McClure, the wet acoustic obscures much detail. (35:29)

CD 9

Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (1989). Hopelessly flashy. The slow tempos are very slow, and the fast ones very fast in this absurdly bifurcated Sacre. It’s very exciting but counterproductive to any musical continuity and impossible to dance to. His later DG recording is more traditionally paced. (32:13) A fine Symphony in Three Movements is included from the original CD release.

CD 10

San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (1996). MTT remains a master of Le Sacre with all the details so often missing in other performances right in place, superbly played and recorded. The Glorification and Evocation sections may seem a bit hasty, but they stir the blood. (34:54)


Sony’s Stravinsky conducts Le Sacre du Printemps

CD 1

Le Sacre du Printemps (1960). See CD5 above.

Firebird Ballet Suite (revised 1945 version). Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky (1967). Stravinsky’s most popular and frequently performed piece is the 1919 Suite from The Firebird ballet. But it was not under copyright and he never made a dime from it. So in 1945 he arranged and reorchestrated a new suite, adding several dances from the complete ballet. Most orchestras continued to perform the 1919 suite, however, because they didn’t have to pay royalties for it. I listened to this “bonus” stereo recording directly after hearing his 1946 recording. What a difference in the expressiveness of his conducting; the music breathes with rubato, affection, and breadth, especially in the horn solo and strings of the Final Hymn, before the brass fanfare of Palace Merrymaking. It’s as if he knew it would be his final recording. And indeed it was. (29:24)

CD 2

Le Sacre du Printemps (1940). See CD2 above.

Firebird Ballet Suite (revised 1945 version). New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky (1946). This new suite was hot off the presses when Stravinsky recorded it. But some transitions were abrupt—especially jarring between the Berceuse and Final Hymn—and before the score was printed he added three Pantomimes and brief transitional material, totaling about three minutes. It’s good that Sony decided to include these two Firebird suites and allow us to hear a great composer at work. (26:00)


Decca’s Complete Collector’s Edition: Le Sacre du printemps

CD 1

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum (1946). The oldest Sacre in this set, it is remarkably well played and conducted. Tempos are similar to the composer’s. It lacks the detail of modern recordings, of course, but it’s full of atmosphere. Timpani mostly inaudible. Fine transfer, with no audible 78 joins. (32:08)

L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (1950). Ansermet was one of Stravinsky’s great early champions, but his recordings are mere curios today. The insufficiencies of his Suisse Romande are all too clear, as are his devitalized interpretations. His 1957 stereo remake is no improvement. (33:56)

CD 2

RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Ferenc Fricsay (1954). At last a recording of Le Sacre in which the timpani make their proper effect (even if the bass drum is weak)! An excellent performance, if perhaps bit too sane. (33:39)

Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Dorati (1954). A CD first. A driving, dynamic performance with all the crucial instrumental details powerfully captured in their correct acoustical space by Mercury Living Presence’s single mic. The Dance of the Earth and Danse sacrale are incredibly exciting, and the timpanist is on fire. The 1959 stereo remake is faster, seeming frantic and lightweight. (31:18)  

CD 3

Orchestre des cento soli/Rudolf Albert (1956). The sleeper of the set. Decca couldn’t even find a photo of Albert! Well paced and played, it only flags a bit in the last pages of the Danse sacrale, as one imagines the exhausted virgin dancing herself to death would. The few instances of imprecise ensemble are of no concern. The German-born Albert was a contemporary-music exponent, and a few weeks after leading this recording he conducted the world premiere of Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. (33:37)

Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Pierre Monteux (1956). There are several pirate Monteux Sacres on the market, but this was his fourth and final studio recording and the only one in stereo, produced by John Culshaw. On paper it looks promising and authentic (French maestro who conducted the work’s first performance, French orchestra, recorded in Paris’s Salle Wagram), but the fact that it was recorded over a nine-day period may indicate that there were extra-musical reasons for the lackluster leadership and lax ensemble. The 1951 Boston on Sony is best. (32:57)

CD 4

L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (1957). (33:52) See CD1.

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati (1959). (29:56) See CD2.

CD 5

Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan (1963). Stravinsky criticized this performance as “a pet savage rather than a real one . . . . There are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring. Berlin’s “sostenuto style is a principal fault,” he continues. “The music is alien to the culture of its performers.” It’s a fascinating performance, with many instrumental felicities, but it’s ultimately a curio, which goes for its 1977 remake as well. (33:48)

London Symphony/Colin Davis (1963). A young man’s Sacre—exciting, athletic, well played for its time. Well recorded. (30:29)

CD 6

Los Angeles Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta (1969). The first “modern” recording from these labels, with obvious multi-miking, deep bass drum, and exaggerated timpani, as if you were onstage. The Danse sacrale is exciting and well played, which characterizes the entire performance. It may not be your ideal seat in the concert hall, but “Wow!” (32:54)

Boston Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (1972). Excellent playing and conducting, recorded naturally in Symphony Hall’s gorgeous ambient warmth. If occasional detail is lost, the aura of a genuine concert makes up for it. Tilson Thomas told me soon after the sessions that this was the only recording, including the composer’s own, that followed the metronome marks precisely. Whatever the case, it remains one of the best. (34:00) 

CD 7

London Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink (1973). The low-level volume is not all that needs a boost, despite careful instrumental balances. (34:07)

London Philharmonic/Erich Leinsdorf 1974). Stolidly conducted, with distracting Phase 4 balances. I wonder if Leinsdorf was standing in for another maestro taken ill, as I enjoyed his sumptuous Sacre with the Boston Symphony in fall 1968 at Lincoln Center. (33:26)

CD 8

Vienna Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel (1974). This version was panned for unidiomatic playing by the VPO and Maazel’s eccentricities, but over headphones the playing is mostly accurate and quite beautiful–perhaps not what one wants in a Sacre, but interesting nonetheless. Then there are those 11 fortissimo chords that lead into the Glorification of the Chosen One section, which Maazel has the Viennese play ludicrously slow and meaty, and several other yucky protractions of brass glissandi. Of interest to the curious. His New York Phil performance during his tenure was thankfully less vulgarized. (33:41)

Chicago Symphony/Georg Solti (1974). Superbly played, no eccentricities, closely recorded. Minor imprecisions in the Glorification section prove that the musicians are human, but no matter. This is a mind-blowing Sacre, truly virtuoso, highly recommended. (32:12)

CD 9

London Symphony/Claudio Abbado (1975). A fine performance, powerfully recorded, with plenty of excellent details from the LSO, such as a fast, sinister bass clarinet before the Danse sacrale. But as usual with Abbado, I don’t hear much character in the playing to complement the precision—certainly nothing approaching Solti/Chicago. (33:17)

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis (1976).

CD 10

Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan (1977). (34:18) See CD5.

National Youth Orchestra/Simon Rattle (1978).

CD 11

Boston Symphony/Seiji Ozawa (1979).

Detroit Symphony/Antal Dorati (1981).

CD 12

Israel Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein (1982).

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Charles Dutoit (1984).

CD 13

The Cleveland Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (1985).

The Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (1991).

CD 14

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Georg Solti (1991).

The MET Orchestra/James Levine (1992).

CD 15

Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy (1994).

Orchestre de Paris/Semyon Bychkov (1995).

CD 16

Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink (1995).

Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev (1999).

CD 17

Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen (2006).

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung (2007).

CD 18

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel (2010).

Four hands: Bracha Eden, Alexander Tamir (1968).

CD 19

Four hands: Güher and Süher Pekinel (1983).

Four hands: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andrei Gavrilov (1990).

CD 20 – Bonus CD

Violin Concerto

Samuel Dushkin, violin; Lamoureux Concert Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky (1935).

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