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5.0 out of 5 stars A stunningly virtuosic Le Sacre, with Rattle at the top of his game--a winner, 9 April 2013
This review is from: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Apollon Musagète; Symphonies of Wind Instruments (Audio CD)
Now that Sir Simon Rattle has announced that he is leaving the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018, many of us are wondering in retrospect what kind of legacy he will leave. One of the great paradoxes of Rattle's tenure has been that he has arguably had his greatest successes in the very traditional Germanic repertoire the critics have suggested he doesn't understand. His Brahms, Strauss, Bruckner, and Schoenberg have been revelatory, to a greater degree than his Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky (up to this point), composers with whom he has long been associated. It's all very strange.

But with this new Le Sacre, Rattle sets out to prove his strengths as a modernist. Rattle was an acclaimed Stravinsky conductor in his early days at the CBSO, and while those readings are touched with freshness, the CBSO is no Berlin Phil. Karajan was too smooth and glib in his attempts at Le Sacre with the Berlin Phil, and in general there seems to be a deficit of recordings that feature both crushing virtuosity and an inspired conductor. So even though countless readings cram the catalog, Rattle has a real opportunity to stand out, perhaps even set a standard.

Thankfully, Rattle seized his moment. His conducting is intense and involved without feeling mannered or fussy--sighs of relief all around. With the stunning sound quality from EMI, Rattle certainly sets a new standard for orchestral virtuosity. Have the opening woodwind solos ever sounded so yearningly expectant? Yet we continue to marvel as we progress through the kaleidoscope of the highs of orchestral sumptuousness. Everything is voiced with impeccable care. We can hear each individual instrument in the whamming chords, but they are still crushing.

After being in the concert hall for a century now, Le Sacre is no longer impossible to play, nor does it cause audiences to lose their cool, much less their sanity. There's a certain thrill to recordings where the orchestra seems to struggle to keep up, but I'd volunteer that hearing the Berliners play with effortless passion is just as compelling. It's amazing how musical Le Sacre sounds in Rattle's hands, even lyrical. In the sections that the work is no longer bellowing but resting amid haunting, ethereal sounds (the opening of Part II in particular) Rattle finds a whole new sound world. In the past, these sections merely seemed to be reprisals from the storm, so it's wonderful to have them bloom as beautiful moments that are equally captivating. Rattle doesn't downplay the eruptions, though, turning them into cataclysmic moments of overwhelming sound. In the end, it would be hard to praise Rattle too highly. I'd place him firmly up with my favorite readings from Stravinsky himself, Monteux, Bernstein, Salonen, and Gergiev. None of the aforementioned comes close to matching the Berliners' playing, though.

After Le Sacre, Apollon Musagete can seem like a setback. (One snobbish British critic dismissed the album solely for that reason.) But thanks to Rattle, it isn't hard to sit up and take note. The dreamy, hazy work is suited to his thoughtful probing and we can bask in the Berlin strings' wonderful sound. Rattle seems almost peerless when leading string orchestras in modern music. (I heard an unforgettable Verklärte Nacht in Carnegie Hall.) Rattle's conducting is patient and touched with melancholy that can be heartrending. I can't imagine listening unmoved. Acting as a bridge between the two main pieces is the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, played by the incomparable Berlin Phil wind players. It's hard to imagine it being bettered.

I'm thrilled to recognize this new disc as a solid win for Rattle, his greatest success in the standard modern repertoire since he took Berlin. Let's hope his remaining five years in Berlin continues in this line of excellence.
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Location: Leola, Pa United States

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