STRAVINSKY: Le Sacre du Printemps; Le Roi des Etoiles – Men’s Chorus of the New England Conserv./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Michael Tilson Thomas – Pentatone multichannel SACD (4.0) PTC 5186 225, 39:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Not all of the releases in Pentatone’s admirable remastered quadraphonics series are necessarily deserving of the honor—this one most definitely is. This is the recording that first introduced me to the piece, way back in 1972 when a friend, in the darkness of a room at a party, said “you’ve gotta hear this.” I didn’t know what to make of it—though it was definitely outside the norm of my classical listening at that point in time, it was tonally grounded enough and in possession of logical inevitability for me to pursue it further. Over the years I have come to deeply love it, and now it sounds as consonant and familiar as anything by Tchaikovsky. The times have surely changed, and so much that is found in this piece, embryonic at the time, has seeped into all kinds of music since then, across any number of stylistic genres.
This Rite under review has acquired legendary status, and with good reason—it’s really the first modern recording when the techniques of sound reproduction were beginning to change, and also the best recording of the work ever captured in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Bernstein set the modern standard with his 1958 New York Phil recording, still one of the most exciting and powerful even if the Philharmonic was not exactly the most refined band at the time. In fact, their own rawness matches Stravinsky’s conception and adds to the luster of the Bernstein reading. (The composer supposedly said “Wow!” after hearing Bernstein rehearse the piece.) MTT had the Boston Symphony at the absolute height of its twentieth century excellence, every section head a legend in his or her own right, and the marketing moniker “The Aristocrat of Orchestras” was a very apt one indeed. Only Bernstein’s second reading with the London Symphony could approach the smoothness and tonal luminosity of the BSO, and that recording cannot match the DGG sound and unbelievable cascade of clarity that emanates from the speakers.
This BSO reading was always a very natural soundscape, somewhat distant in perspective, and the inescapable feeling of an empty Symphony Hall. The first release in digital format was and is very good, and has more presence than this release. Since it was captured in quadraphonic, we have waited a long time to hear what was exactly on those tapes, and the results are generally excellent if a little questionable. The first thing that struck me was the sense of vast sonic spread, almost as if I had been transported from Symphony Hall to a large airplane hangar—the spatial distance is that great, and Boston’s hall does not sound like that! Consequently I had to readjust to the diffuse separation of sound groups. Changing the player to SACD 2-channel didn’t make much difference, only confining the vastness to a lesser number of outlets. Reducing it further to the CD-only track brought it closer to what is found on the DGG Gallerie release, but there is still more reverb and depth in this Pentatone issue than found there. So the surround sound is still the best way to hear this even though the first couple of times are admittedly a little disconcerting. Interpretatively of course, it is what it is, and that is superb, Tilson Thomas at the time as brash and energetic as the piece itself.
I would like to hear the Columbia Bernstein 1972 London Symphony Rite as it was also recorded in quadraphonic, and the engineers went to all sorts of crazy orchestra rearranging in order to capture it (and evidently drove the conductor nuts). It’s a very smooth and lyrical reading, deserving of a surround sound issue. But even though this one is only 39 minutes—ugh—and includes the original pairing of The King of the Stars, dedicated to Debussy who was quite taken with the short work, if you want the recording as it was meant to be heard in the first place, this is it. It is an essential acquisition for those who love the Rite, even if the surround sound is not how you might imagine it. Welcome back!