STRAVINSKY: Le Sacre du Printemps – New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein – Sony Classical 88765469152, 33:00 ****:
Certain musical documents stir particular memories: the Sony reissue of MS 6010, the 20 January 1958 performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps by Leonard Bernstein, recalls my own first experience of this powerful score in live concert – with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, circa 1961. The program included: Wagner: Siegfried’s Funeral March; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D (Francescatti); and Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. After the performance of the Brahms, setting up the intermission, an elegant young couple behind me and my chaperone, they wearing elegant evening clothes, rose from their seats, and the gentleman whispered loudly to his companion, “Let’s not ruin the Brahms.” I had no idea what he meant, for I was innocent even of the Disney treatment of the score. And had I heard it, I could not have named it.
Then, after I returned to my seat, so did Lenny appear before the orchestra that was soon to be his alone, Lenny’s having “usurped” the position from his mentor, Dimitri Mitropoulos. From the opening bassoon solo through the gripping poundings of the tympani (eleven times), to the blaring of the four trumpets and six French horns, I became transfixed, unnerved and weirdly moved by an extremely primitive experience. Now, with the return of Bernstein’s original document – recorded in the mammoth space of the Colorama Ballroom of the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn – which restores artist Gray Foy’s shamanic cover art, we have a shattering reminder of how fully Lenny controlled this score. Producer Howard Scott ensured the intensity of the performance by placing spot microphones within three to twelve inches of selected individual instruments. Even Stravinsky found the recording blood-rousing, having literally been lifted out of his seat when he auditioned it at the CBS studio.
The accompanying booklet includes a host of reminiscences by conductors and composers about their relationship to Le Sacre and its musical significance. The record itself had its release 14 July 1958, the celebration of France’s Bastille Day. So, too, do musicians and connoisseurs conceive Le Sacre as a form of liberation from the musical past, equal to what Beethoven achieved in his own time. Everyone in the music industry is busy paying homage to Le Sacre on its centennial anniversary, that fateful 29 May 1913 in Paris when its own springtime music making suddenly erupted into emotional and physical violence. Curiously, Stravinsky always recalled more fervently the work’s second performance, less riotous, perhaps, but ending in his embrace with conductor Monteux, which Stravinsky labeled “the sweatiest kiss of my life.”
So, once more, we say “Bis! Maestro!” and turn our attention to performances old and new, historical and hysterical, of Le Sacre du Printemps. And Lenny Bernstein’s remains one of the best.