Top 10 Essential Rite of Spring Recordings

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Recordings of The Rite of Spring began appearing shortly after the advent of the electronic microphone. The work's first conductor, Pierre Monteux, vied with Stravinsky himself to get the first one out, both tracking it with different but equally scrappy Paris bands in 1929. The following year, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra produced a version that was technically advanced, but a bit too suave. Stokowski would go on, of course, to conduct The Rite in Walt Disney's "Fantasia," which brought it to the attention of an otherwise unreachable audience (like my mom and dad and their four year old son.)

While there were other decent 78rpm Rites from Ernest Ansermet, Eduard Van Beinum, Monteux (with San Francisco) and Stravinsky (with the NY Phil in 1940) the piece came into its own with the arrival of LPs and high fidelity. Few other classics so desperately need to be heard with a wide dynamic range, especially on that big bottom end.

But other than a good bass drum presence, what does a great Rite recording need? The most obvious qualities are drive and excitement–you really want to be led along breathlessly and thrilled (if not terrified) at the end. Along with smart pacing (not simply fast) this requires great ensemble–those displaced accents lose it if they're not unanimous…and then there's color. The Rite of Spring has exquisite harmony and orchestration, often revealed in quieter passages, and those introduction movements should come up as fresh and strange as Rousseau paintings. Which leads us to the wind soloists.

The percussion section notwithstanding, nothing is more important to a successful Rite than the ability of the solo wind players to project individual character. But what character? The opening bassoon and joining friends should be alive, lithe, sinuous and alert, but alien, reptilian perhaps. The music is not sad, nor should it be bluesy. As Stravinsky himself said "there is no room for soul-searching in Le Sacre." The key to the whole thing seems to be to remain eternally fresh and nonjudgmental. The music is most wondrous on a very primal level, that of surprising sounds and great beats. It is ultimately an uplifting piece. After all, the sacrifice is made for all to become one with nature and bring the earth back to life.

There are well over a hundred versions of The Rite on record. Here are ten whose greatness I will vouch for. Varying approaches are on display, from Leonard Bernstein's passion to Daniele Gatti's poetry, from Pierre Boulez's ruthless efficiency to Valery Gergiev's wild barbarism, but one thing is common to all. There is never any doubt that everyone in that huge orchestra is on the edge of their seat. Which I guess is what keeps us on the edge of ours.

My Top 10 in chronological performance order:

Pierre Monteux, Boston Symphony Orchestra (1951)

When Stravinsky first played him the music for The Rite, Monteux had to go and sit down in another room, concluding that he would stick to conducting Brahms. Over the years he said he didn't like the piece, and that he liked it very much. After conducting the premiere in 1913, he worked with the composer on score touch-ups and became the leading proponent of The Rite as a concert work. He recorded it four times. This one with his beloved BSO is by far the best played and well recorded for its vintage, the performance a model of poetry with a punch.

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (1958)

The first of the great "hot" recordings, with Lenny pressing ahead passionately, driving the NY Phil into a barely contained frenzy. Upon hearing it, Stravinsky said “wow!”

Igor Markevitch, Philharmonia Orchestra (1959)

One of the true Rite scholars, Markevitch actually advised the composer on errors in the 1947 revision. In 1951 he made a fine mono recording with the Philharmonia. Then in 1959, when a Klemperer session was cancelled at the last minute, Markevitch stepped in and they decided to redo his Rite in stereo. Mastery of the notes, combined with the spontaneity of the session, results in an unforgettable reading, one which finds all the elements, poetry, excitement, precision and mayhem, in perfect balance. 

Igor Stravinsky, Columbia Symphony Orchestra (1960)

While never considered a great conductor, Stravinsky certainly knew the score, and here, at the age of 78, he had another thing going for him: reverence. The musicians of the NY Phil (here renamed for contractual reasons) play their hearts out for him in this uniquely exciting last testament.

Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra (1969)

Boulez was the arriving hero of contemporary music when he made this first of two versions with Cleveland and it was something of a watershed moment for perceptions of the piece. The approach is cool, steady and strong, The Rite as irresistible force rather than wild animal, but the performance never loses focus and the tension gradually builds to the overwhelming inevitability of the explosive ending. What seals the concept is the perfection of the Cleveland Orchestra's playing, a clear sign that mastery was now at hand. Future thrills would have to come from interpretation, not wondering if the players could play all the notes.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Boston Symphony Orchestra (1972)

A bit reminiscent of the classic Monteux, a young Michael Tilson Thomas delivers a thrilling take that is lean, catlike, flexible and ferocious, with the distinctively French wind timbres of the Boston Symphony Orchestra beautifully captured by Deutsche Grammophon.

Riccardo Chailly, Cleveland Orchestra (1985)

Hello again, Cleveland. Chailly's Rite is a bit like Boulez's with the same band, somewhat cool-headed with beautifully judged balances, but more urgently on the move, overpowering and spectacularly recorded. This is a recording that gives you the monster bass drum without any sense of vulgarity.

Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra (1999)

In the absence of a Russian performance tradition for The Rite, Gergiev invents one, feral and intuitive, idiosyncratic at times, emphasizing the work's barbarism and sonic strangeness. A great version unlike any other.

Andrew Litton, Bergen Philharmonic (2009)

A stunner from a fine conductor not particularly known as a Stravinsky interpreter. This is a reading, like the Markevitch, where all the elements are in perfect balance. It is beautiful, exciting and hellacious, with a narrative feel that sweeps you along, The sense of newness and surprise is everywhere. The audio quality is as good and true as any this sound showpiece has ever received. If I had to recommend one recording to a Rite newcomer, it might be this one.

Daniele Gatti, Orchestre National de France (2011)

Finally, a great recording of The Rite with a French orchestra. Daniele Gatti's approach is initially atmospheric, the blending of the serpentine woodwinds of the Introduction has never been headier, but there is an unusual stillness to it. Similarly, the "Augurs of Spring–Dance of the Adolescents" is poised, or coiled perhaps, rather than totally incendiary. Gatti seems to have his sights set on points down the road, as the performance accumulates beautiful shaded details and gathers strength as it goes along. The thrills are there, just not necessarily where you expect them. One is drawn in by intoxicating sounds rather than sheer drive and the Orchestre National de France, now Gatti's band, are heroes, beautifully recorded.

Apologia: There are almost innumerable good recordings of The Rite, many of whom would be on my list if it were longer, so it seems only fair to cite some of the most memorable: Abbado/London, Rattle/Berlin Phil, Ozawa/Chicago, Mehta/Vienna Phil, Ancerl/Czech Phil, Dorati/Minnesota and Detroit, Ansermet/Suisse Romande, Fricsay/RIAS, Dudamel/Simon Bolivar, Davis/Concertgebouw, Haitink/Berlin Phil, Craft/St. Lukes and London, Simonov/Royal Phil…and let's just stop there…for now.

Q2 Music's Rite of Spring Fever is a 24-hour marathon on Wednesday, May 29 hosted by Phil Kline of contrasting interpretations of Stravinsky's masterpiece and a complementary web portal of interviews, testimonials and interactive features.