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CD Review

Stravinsky / Scriabin

Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Philips 468035-2
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This is arguably one of the finest recordings ever made. The combination of sound and interpretation is such that it is almost a paradigm. If you can listen to this and disagree please tell me why.

First, the recording. Listening at home is a completely different experience from attending a concert. At home you are usually alone or with just a few friends (and I am not talking about having music on as a background) and have selected what you want to hear. You have provided yourself with the best possible sound system to further your appreciation. So, the experience is even more one you have created to better appreciate the music. Then you find the "sweet spot" and sit back and listen. And listen. And listen. As I listened to this recording I heard music I had never heard before. The solo instrument details realized transformed the music to something else. It was almost like a metamorphosis. This was due, largely, to the recording itself, not the interpretation. Granted, the conductor has a lot to do with the balance, but it is for shit if the person behind the controls knows shit. Stokowski used to sit in on the actual sessions and pass judgment before it was released. I do not know if Gergiev did this, but the recording is certainly musically informed. (Hey, maybe I have created a new concept with a new phrase)

This would still all mean nada if it weren't for the orchestra and interpretation. The orchestra plays like one of the best I have ever heard. The bassoonist brings emotions to the music that makes it feel "Russian" and even Jewish at times. The timpani sounds like there is more than one and if there ain't this is even more phenomenal. Some of this is thanks to the recording, but the recording can only capture what the percussionist(s) play. Now, we still have to add the conductor to the stew. Any orchestra can be excellent but play lousy for a conductor that doesn't get it. This is not the case here. It takes a conductor to suggest that the bassoonist play the opening a certain way. Listen to the Levi recording on Telarc. The opening is played "okay" but it has no accent, no inflection. I recall a story about Stokowski telling a musician to play a note a certain way (man, I am sorry I cannot find the exact person or piece). After much trial-and-error the player insisted it couldn't be done by anyone. Stokowski told him to go home and work at it. That evening while working on it, suddenly she played that note the way he had wanted her to. I think of this because I can imagine a similar conversation between Gergiev and some of the soloists (hey, tam-tam… ) because what I hear here is a sound. It is a sound unlike Stokowski's or Monteux's. It joins that exalted duo, however, as they all have their own sound and it is emotional. When I listen to this recording I get involved in the music. Yes, I confess that I often think that Stokowski and Disney got it right as I listen and see dinosaurs.

Oh, yeah, add the finest "Poem of Ecstasy" I have heard. This I was able to compare with no less than four Stokowski recordings. While there are some differences between the two studio and live performances, Stokowski's interpretations remained very similar. The Decca recording has been poorly remastered. It is too bright, the strings are not lush there is not enough air around the music (for example, the opening trumpet solo just suddenly stops whereas in the Kirov performance it fades away). Gergiev's sense of relief places everything in perfect perspective. Here there is a lush sense, almost Stokowski like. Now, Stokowski's live performance (on BBC Classics 4018, with a "Fantastique" Berlioz) has a better sound, but the fact is that it is "radio sound" which has less clarity, fewer details emerge. So, Gergiev is the best I have heard.

Okay, here is an attempt to place this recording of the "Rite" in perspective. My favorite "Rites" have been Stokowski and the Philadelphia (sounds like they are playing by the seat of their pants and there is the Stokowski Sound: on Pearl) Monteux's 1951 Boston Symphony Orchestra recording (sounding French, which makes sense since Stravinsky was in France at the time) and Markevitch (which was my favorite stereo recording… the bassoonist lingers a bit more at the opening than does the Kirov soloist and there are other differing points that distinguish it) but the recorded details I can hear in the Gergiev that are not heard in the EMI recording add to the reasons why it is the finest recording of this piece I have ever heard.

Copyright © 2002, Robert Stumpf II