By the time I started seriously collecting classical music, both the "Royal Edition" issue and the "Original Jacket Collection" that held this particular Rite were very expensive and hard to find. It's been surprisingly elusive over the past ten years, especially considering its fame. When Sony released a 10-disc collection of great recordings of the piece and chose the conductors' 1970's London Symphony recording, I was wary, but hopeful. This present disc put my fears to rest.
After 55 years, this remains one of the most savage, raw, and fiery views of the work to date. While Bernstein would not only record the Rite with the London Symphony, he would also collaborate with the Israel Philharmonic late in his career. Both of those readings (on Sony and DG, respectively) are notable for the energy and unique sound that he's able to get from those particular ensembles, but Bernstein's relationship with the New York Philharmonic remains one of the most important partnerships in history. First-desk playing is incredible, and the whole orchestra plays as if they had no other option. It's not the tidiest Rite around, but it's magnificent overall and far preferable to some modern views which inexplicably underplay the savagery and shock.
Bernstein in January 1958 was about as happy and healthy as he was going to be in his long career, and there is absolutely no question that he is in total command of both his forces and his artistic vision. There's nothing wrong with his late DG Stravinsky recordings, but they don't match the sheer energy and mastery of the idiom here. And in case the London version is new to you, that too is excellent, lacking only the panache and (especially!) sonic quality on display here. Along with Bernstein's Firebird Suite and Petrouska in New York, this is the most convincing evidence on display of the conductors' long and storied commitment to a fellow musical giant of the 20th century. The re-mastered sound is excellent, although the packaging is big on "cool" and low on "practical". There is also no coupling. Nevertheless, a triumph, and a cornerstone of any serious collection.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman