CD Review: Leinsdorf’s Stravinsky sleek, but lacking in verve

stravinsky_rite_leinsdorf

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka (1911 version)*
London Philharmonic Orchestra;
Thomas Rajna (piano)*, New Philharmonia Orchestra*/Erich Leinsdorf
Decca Eloquence 482 3444 | ADD | Total time: 68’36”

Decca Eloquence has once again dug deep into the vaults, this time exhuming two recordings conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that had previously not received wide CD distribution.

He was a martinet who could draw brilliant performances live. His studio discography, however, is more variable.

Leinsdorf’s cycles of Brahms (unavailable on CD outside of Japan) or Prokofiev symphonies and concerti (since reissued by Testament and Sony), for example, rank among the best. The latter, even in its woefully incomplete state—with his baton crisply delineating the sharp rhythmic edges, while the tart sound of the old Boston Symphony accentuating the harmonic sting of these scores—remains unsurpassed. Another gem is his recording of Stravinsky’s Agon with the same orchestra. Though not matching the primal energy of the composer’s own recording, Leinsdorf’s poise and elegance has its own rewards.

These 1970s-era Decca recordings of the same composer’s The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, however, while fluent and direct, are touched by the anonymity that mars some of his studio work.

Only a few years prior, Leinsdorf’s successor in Boston, Seiji Ozawa, made recordings of both ballets that still rank among the finest. His reading with the Chicago Symphony of the The Rite of Spring makes for an especially instructive comparison. Under Ozawa, the closing “Sacrificial Dance” lunges forward with a relentless rhythmic drive that makes almost visceral the violence that shocked the work’s first audiences in 1913. Leinsdorf, on the other hand, comes in just a shade slower (4’22” as opposed to the younger conductor’s 4’12”); and while he and the London Philharmonic neatly pull off the near-constant changes in meter, the result somehow sounds flat-footed, the danger disappointingly airbrushed. “Scenes of Pagan Russia,” perhaps, but depicted by Thomas Kinkade instead of Nicholas Roerich.

Leinsdorf’s Petrushka with the New Philharmonia is better. His attentiveness to texture and color in the outer tableaux—listen to the layering of winds at the start of “The Shrovetide Fair (Evening)”—is simply beautiful. But the crepuscular interior worlds of the second and third tableaux sound comparatively detached. Another earlier reading of this work comes to mind, this time directly recalled in the liner notes.

Thomas Rajna, who was the pianist on this recording, contributes a brief reminiscence of these sessions, as well as of a prior one he had performed on that ultimately would not see the light of day until 1999.

Prior to the Leinsdorf Petrushka I also did another Petrushka concert and recording with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967. […] [B]y this time he was 81 and in poor health. He was unable to control the irregular rhythms, particularly in the first scene. EMI, who were behind this venture, cancelled the release of this recording with the consent of Klemperer. […] At least one listener still referred to it as a disaster. […] I could not help remembering the Klemperer episode, but under Leinsdorf’s meticulous and calm control it all fell into place and there was none of the unease and anxiety of the previous occasion.

Like all of Klemperer’s late recordings, the ensemble sound is rough, the pacing deliberate. And, indeed, there are numerous moments of rhythmic instability and imprecise execution. (Though nowhere near being a “disaster.”) But how alive the score sounds under Klemperer! His is a reading that is almost unique in this work’s catalog: a phantasmagorical cavalcade of grotesqueries—the brutish Moor, the ballerina with bad taste in men, the sensitive unto neurasthenic Petrushka—over which long, expressionistic shadows flicker amidst harsh light. Whereas Leinsdorf delivers the notes, Klemperer finds the music. The latter is the G. W. Pabst or Fritz Lang to the former’s W. S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke.

Though the efficiency and clarity on display here are attractive in their own right, they don’t dispel the dullness of Leinsdorf’s general approach. A reissue best enjoyed by his fans only. All others are directed to Gergiev, Currentzis, Boulez (Sony or DG), Svetlanov, Muti, and Ozawa in The Rite of Spring; Monteux, Scherchen, Boulez (Sony or DG again), and Solti in the 1911 version of Petrushka. For the 1947 version, Klemperer is unforgettable and essential.

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