Le Sacre du printemps at 100

by Sedgwick Clark

At the very moment I post this blog, 100 years ago in Paris there was a riot going on in the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Even those who have never heard Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps know about the uproar that ensued moments into its first performance. I’ve probably heard this work in concert and on recordings more than any other. And now I’ve heard it even more, thanks to omnibus “cap” box sets released by Decca and Sony to commemorate the occasion.

The Decca “100th Anniversary Collectors Edition” is amazing, incorporating every recording made on the British Decca, German Deutsche Grammophon, Dutch Philips, and American Mercury labels, as well as a couple of stray recordings owned by the umbrella company, Universal Classics. Spanning 1946 (Eduard van Beinum leading Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra) to 2010 (Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela), these 35 recordings of the full-orchestra version present as vivid a history of the European style of recorded sound in the post-War era as we are likely to find in a single release.

Fleshing out this 20-CD Sacre set are three recordings for piano duet and Stravinsky’s 1935 recording of his Violin Concerto with Samuel Dushkin, the work’s first performer. The 21-minute concerto stands alone on the final CD; presumably the compilation producer, Tony Shaw, thought the performance too important historically to omit, even if his company lacked further appropriate material to fill out the disc. Kudos, Mr. Shaw! Too bad there wasn’t a recording horn around on June 9, 1912, for the first performance of the not-quite-complete duet version. The pianists were Stravinsky and Claude Debussy.

Only five recordings of Le Sacre preceded the van Beinum/Concertgebouw one:

(1) Orchestre symphonique du Gramophone/Pierre Monteux, 1929 (Pearl)

(2) Orchestre symphonique/Igor Stravinsky, 1929 (Pearl)

(3) Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski, 1929-30

(4) Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Igor Stravinsky, 1940

(5) San Francisco Symphony/Pierre Monteux, 1945

The new Sony “100th Anniversary Collection,” one of the label’s three releases this month in homage to Le Sacre du printemps, includes the 1929 Stokowski and 1940 Stravinsky. Unlike Decca’s “Sacre-Geek” Edition, this 10-CD set doesn’t collect all the Sacres in its catalogue. Missing are the 1945 RCA San Francisco/Monteux, the 1958 Columbia New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein (see below), and the 1978 Columbia New York Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta versions. My completist tendencies would prefer to have them all in one set, like the Decca. But Sony does include Monteux’s 1951 Boston Symphony recording—easily the best of the four by the man who conducted the world premiere—and Mehta is represented by his 1969 Los Angeles recording in the Decca box. I am happy to have this set—even if I had already heard all the recordings except the never-reissued 1955 Philadelphia/Ormandy. However, I must protest the absurdly trying space-saving solution to the listing of track timings, printed in small type on a grey background. WHAT ARE DESIGNERS THINKING? For a sensible, well-organized, readable layout, look to the Decca booklet.

A hardbound two-CD set couples the composer’s 1960s stereo and 1940s mono recordings of Le Sacre and the revised 1945 Firebird Ballet Suite. This release is evidently aimed at those who only want Stravinsky’s own Sacre recordings since those are in the 10-CD set as well. But what about those collectors who want the “bonus” Firebirds too? In the great Columbia Records tradition of “screw the customer,” they have to purchase both sets.

I’m not quite sure when Bernstein’s 1958 New York Philharmonic recording of Le Sacre became “legendary,” but it’s an exciting, expressive performance that reportedly wowed the composer. A handsomely designed double-gatefold package was released singly earlier this month. The sound is more open than on earlier CD incarnations and strikes me as being from the master tapes, but why didn’t Sony say so? What does “original analogue sources” in the booklet credits mean? Or “a new audio transfer from the original reels” in the press release accompanying the CD? More troublesome are the English horn’s flubbed 32nd notes in the Ritual Action of the Ancestors section [track 13, 19 seconds], which were correct on the label’s Royal Edition CD over 20 years ago. I’m sorry to say, the new disc should be withdrawn and corrected, including typos of Bernstein on the spine, and Nijinsky and Roerich on captions.

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