Both Petrushka and the Rite date from 1911, and these performances of them were recorded in 1991. By that date Boulez himself was not in the springtime of his youth, and it may well be, as some comment seems to suggest, that his readings are less incisive than in earlier days. Myself, I am not even fully convinced that this is the case, and even if it is the compensations seem to me more than to make up for it. These readings are less strident than some, and there is no sense of straining to obtain effects of contrast. Petrushka's cry, for one thing, is relatively euphonious here, and the Rite in general is probably not quite as dramatic as my wonderful performance, extraordinarily well recorded on a Mercury LP about 50 years ago, by Dorati with the Minneapolis orchestra. On the other hand, Boulez at this stage of his career seems concerned more than before with beauty of orchestral tone, and I say without hesitation that this is the most beautiful Petrushka that I have ever heard in my own lengthening life.
In any case, even if the new approach is less forceful than previously, I detect no loss whatsoever of underlying strength. Boulez has always seemed to me ideally suited as a conductor of Stravinsky. His dynamics may be less `terraced' here than he would once have made them, but the clarity of texture that he obtains is as absolute as ever, and his strength of line and rock-steady firmness of rhythm mark him out as they always did. Above all what is bound to strike you in this performance is the sheer quality of it all. Listening to sound as magnificent as this, I was astonished that it had been achieved so long ago as 1991. Szell had turned the Cleveland Orchestra into a mighty playing-machine, so bring on the right maestro to mould and direct the virtuosity of every section of the band, give them all world-beating engineering, and the end product is an outright orgy of acoustical perfection and beauty. What an amazing bunch of orchestrators the Russian masters were! Stravinsky was a pupil of Rimsky himself, and the master might have envied his pupil if he had heard what we can all, in the third millennium, hear on this disc.
Occasionally everything seems to go right, just as all too often nothing seems to, and here, on top of the outstanding performance and recording, we have a first class liner-essay by Professor Richard Taruskin. I personally wonder whether, even in 1911, the Rite of Spring was as much of a shock to its hearers as Taruskin lets on - he himself admits that what caused the misbehaviour during the Paris premiere was more Nijinsky's choreography than Stravinsky's harmonies. However he has been given adequate space to set out his erudition and his insights, and he has the appropriate material to fill the space with. These days I find it hard to suppose that Stravinsky in general, and these two works in particular, are capable of shocking any but the least experienced music-lovers. To them, and to those who have been around the matter longer, I say that if the word that you would have used to characterise Stravinsky was not `beautiful' it will be after you have got to know this disc. He is my own favourite Russian composer of them all, but I'm not sure I had quite understood what he amounts to in all ways until I had heard what I have heard on this occasion.