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Lots of slam-bang energy, but 'Rites' can be beautiful at the same time
on 22 July 2015
I originally sold this soon after buying it several years ago. But when I recently purchased the Decca 20-CD boxed set of 'Rites' by various conductors, I looked forward to hearing this again. I imagined that my original judgment was probably hasty and that a new hearing would win me over. Not really. It's never going to be one of my favorites.
I think the recording and playing have a lot to do with it. Woodwinds don't sound very warm or close; trumpets a little thin and buzzy; tympani way loud; and when the basses arrive in 'Spring Rounds,' they do so with a dull thud. Only after several more bars do they begin actually phrasing or showing some feeling or expression. Dudamel's tempos and so forth are fairly standard, though fairly fast at certain points. Conductor and orchestra achieve some precision, but if you like to hear moments of beauty in the Rite of Spring too, and you should expect to be able to, there aren't many here. Too much of this seems focused on speed and loudness. And certainly if speed and loudness are the criteria, then the conclusion of Part I is highly successful. But I prefer readings that achieve excitement as Bernstein does in his London or Israel readings (not his early New York reading), with a skillful, graduated buildup, rather than intensely fast speeds and sonic heft. With Dudamel I just don't hear much sense of real mystery or power, two elements that I think should suffuse any reading of Stravinsky's Rite. Some reviewers here have in the past accused conductors such as Dutoit of garish and shallow readings that work only as sonic blockbusters, but fall short musically, I think it's equally appropriate to level that charge at Dudamel. Certainly, the Rite of Spring admits of different approaches and interpretations. But if the romanticism is being stripped from the classics by a rigid, HIP approach, as some people feel, it seems to me that Dudamel is accomplishing something similar here.