Two Rites Make Right
Last week, classical music bravely weathered one milestone (or is that millstone?) anniversary, the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner. Tomorrow, we get another, the centennial of a work to place alongside Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Louis Armstrong's West End Blues as a harbinger of musical modernity. Yes, I'm referring to Igor Stravinsky's shocking, barbaric, elemental and incredibly exciting ballet Le sacre du printemps, aka The Rite of Spring (NPR's excellent Rite page here). All right, people, settle down!
WFCR will mark the occasion by doing something we hardly ever do — broadcast two complete performances of the same major work in the same day. One comes from roughly half-way through the score's history, the other from the present day. One elicited a "wow!" from the composer, the other excellent notices from the critics. One came, you might say, from when the work was still current, daring and very, very, difficult, the other from when the work is regarded as a classic, in the repertoire of every orchestra, and approachable even by advanced students.
To my ears, the newer of the pair, featuring up-and-coming Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse goes to near the top of modern renditions of Rite. Sleek, driven, crystal-clear, it's like a joy ride in a powerful sports car, one whose pent-up power thrills even when at rest. We'll preview Sokhiev's Rite during the noon hour on Tuesday, when you can here the Suite from The Firebird from the same CD. And by the way, the CD also comes with a DVD of a concert performance by the same conductor and orchestra.
But as to the older of the pair — I'm with you, Igor. Wow! Recorded in Brooklyn's St. George Hotel on the 20th of January, 1958, this Rite came less than one year into Leonard Bernstein's tenure as director of the New York Philharmonic. Not that the playing is less than virtuosic, but anyone who insists on the ultimate in razor-sharp ensemble, impeccable intonation and tonal beauty should turn elsewhere, perhaps to Sokhiev's version. If, however, you want woodwinds that sound like shrieking birds, strings that dig in with everything they've got, trombone yawps that scare the devil out of you, drum thwacks that knock you backwards, crescendos that make your hair stand on end, and a vivid sense of what the first Paris audience heard that day in May, 1913, this is the Rite for you. And just to go completely old-school, Bernstein's freshly remastered Rite is also available on vinyl.
So tune in for WFCR's classical music on Wednesday, when we'll feature Sokhiev's Rite of Spring in the morning and Bernstein's in the afternoon. And while two wrongs don't make a right, you couldn't go wrong with either Rite!