SERGEI RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances, Opus 45; IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring – Toronto Sym. Orch./ Peter Oundjian – TSO Live 0613, 69:10 ****:
This is the eighth album the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has released under its TSO Live label. Music Director Peter Oundjian is in his tenth year leading the orchestra and the live recordings are pet projects of his. I had a chance to speak to him by phone at his Connecticut and I first asked him “Why live vs. studio recordings?” He spoke about how the economics of recording have changed, making studio work prohibitively expensive. He also mentioned that the musicians, and the audience, are more “on their toes” during a live recording, with little chance for patching. And he spoke of the advantages of being in control of one’s own brand, quality and distribution.
I asked Maestro Oundjian why these two pieces were paired. The first reason he mentioned is that they’re both dances. They are both by austere-looking Russians, but are contrasted in that Symphonic Dances is the last work Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) completed before he died, whereas Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote The Rite of Spring when he was only 31. Both pieces reflect on times past in Russia, and particularly the concept of sacrifice. And both are very enjoyable to listen to – the second somewhat more demanding than the first.
The Symphonic Dances is in three parts, all three truly symphonic in structure and sonority, with melodies that could only have come from Rachmaninoff. The first movement, Non Allegro, begins with grim, grotesque and sarcastic determination, then transitions to a long tranquil elegiac melody, and concludes with a march, including a quotation from the composer’s First Symphony. The second movement, Andante con Moto (Tempe de Valse), begins with a parody of a Viennese waltz, builds to an hysterical climax, then recedes to the shadows. The dialog among the brass and woodwinds is very effective here. The third movement is another contrast – Lento Assai – Allegro Vivace – featuring religious motives from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, and Rachmaninoff’s (and other composers’) favorite, the Dies Irae. Seeming to know he was near the end of life, the composer wrote at the bottom of this manuscript “I thank thee, Lord”.
The story of the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris exactly a century ago is legend. After two attempts by the Ballet Russe’s best choreographers, Nijinsky at the premiere, and Massine eight years later, Stravinsky concluded that the best place for this music was not on the ballet stage, but in the concert hall, and it has remained a staple there ever since, allowing the audience to imagine the paganistic frenzy that the music depicts. The two major sections are titled The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice and each has a half dozen or so elements with little or no pause between them. One can understand the difficulty the first audience had in accepting the complicated rhythms and discordant melodies. I find that every subsequent hearing increases my enjoyment of The Rite of Spring.
Both recordings were done at performances in Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, but four years apart – the Rite in 2008, and the Dances in 2012, with the same producer and sound engineer, Gary Gray, for both. Despite the comment about “little patching”, it appears that the better movements from two different live performances of each piece were edited together for this album. The sound is good, and the performances are excellent, with Conductor Oundjian in tight control of his forces. This reflects his strong background in chamber music, having been first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years before taking the job in Toronto.