Due in part to the commotion caused by the work’s premiere and its subsequent performances in the following weeks, but more because of wartime privations affecting musical performances all over Europe, it was not until the 1920s that audiences began to hear and appreciate the score of The Rite in concert form. Its subsequent rapid ascent to “classic” status is now a fact of history, and the number of respectable recorded performances available are well into the double digits.
Naxos’ project of releasing CDs of all of Stravinsky’s works, conducted by Robert Craft, is a huge and noble one, and the present disc represents a significant addition to the recorded Stravinsky legacy. This particular Rite was released by Koch International Classics in 1995; the overall sound and balance of the new release reflect the complex score superbly. The playing of the London Symphony comes as close to perfection as one could ever expect in bringing this score accurately and vibrantly to life, no small complement given the strength and size of the recorded competition. The players and the engineers deserve particular credit for allowing listeners to hear inner voices and subtle rhythmic and sonority features often absent from other recordings. This manifests itself both in the quieter pages of the score, (e.g., the “Introduction” of Part One) as well as in the heavier passages (e.g., the “Procession of the Sage,” also in Part One).
Despite such important and deserved kudos, the performance here does not exude the frenzy and daring excitement that one hears in such recordings as the one by the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev for Philips. If perfection in realization of the composer’s notated intentions is the purchaser’s goal, one can arguably do no better than this recording, particularly in view of Craft’s capabilities and vast experience with the composer personally as well as with his works. However, someone preferring a bit more risk-taking by performers and conductor might not find this performance quite up to par.
The remainder of this disc is given over to a 1997 MusicMasters recording of Stravinsky’s one-act opera, The Nightingale. Stravinsky actually began composing this sonically gorgeous work in 1908, not finishing it until after the premiere of The Rite, when a performance opportunity presented by Diaghilev and his stage director Alexander Sanin provided the composer with the necessary impetus. Paris was again the site of the premiere, on May 26, 1914, almost exactly a year after the premier of The Rite. Less than an hour in length, The Nightingale shared double-billing with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le coq d’or in its initial presentations.
While fully two-thirds of the opera was completed after Stravinsky composed The Rite, the musical language is much closer to that of Firebird, with more than a few pages bringing the sounds of Debussy to mind as well. The experience of scoring both Petrushka and The Rite had developed Stravinsky’s orchestral pallet significantly, however, with the result that the latter parts of this work have some of the richest and most imaginative sonorities to be find anywhere in the composer’s output. Certainly, this can be credited in part to the setting (in China) of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale as well as to the fantastic nature of the story and the role of the nightingale as a central character.
The Philharmonia Orchestra serves both composer and conductor well in this performance. The technical difficulties of the score are handled with aplomb, and the oriental atmosphere is created with sensitivity and a lightness of touch that are perfectly suited to the nature of the story. Both the “real” and the mechanical nightingale in the story fairly leap from the disc with a brilliant realism. The orchestra bears much responsibility for this sonorous beauty, of course, but the singers are equally up to their tasks. The highly demanding role of the Nightingale is virtually tossed off by Olga Trifonova, whose thrilling voice amazes with its agility and range. Likewise, Robert Tear brings his usual lyricism and focused sound to the important role of the Fisherman. Pippa Longworth as the Cook, Paul Whelan as the Emperor, and Sally Burgess as Death stand out among other vocalists, as do the London Voices under Terry Edwards’ guidance.
This is a performance that has been prepared with considerable care and understanding. The Nightingale deserves wider exposure, both for its own virtues and because of what it displays about Stravinsky’s developing style and technique. This valuable (and inexpensive!) recording should go far in increasing that exposure.
Roy J. Guenther
Professor of Music
The George Washington University