CD Review: STRAVINSKY (Le Sacre du printemps) & DEBUSSY (La Mer) (New York Phil, Jaap van Zweden)

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by Tony Frankel on March 23, 2019



Remember the first time you heard a classical work that became a seminal moment for you? Mine came watching Disney’s Fantasia. When I heard the pounding and mysticism and that swirl of orchestrated colors in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps), I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that I was watching gorgeous animation telling of the beginning of earth through earthquakes and the extinction of dinosaurs. Over the years, anyone who deviated from Leopold Stokowski’s rendition — however edited for the 1940 film — got an immediate pooh-pooh from me. Even when I saw a reconstructed version of choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s original ballet on the hundredth anniversary of the ballet — which depicts a virgin sacrifice in an ancient pagan Russia wherein a maiden is chosen to die and must dance herself to death — I found something lacking.

Now, finally, I have heard a conductor that can stand proudly next to my beloved Stowkowski: Jaap van Zweden, who, in his first weeks as music director of the New York Philharmonic, recorded live Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and Debussy’s La Mer, which together make up this third NY Phil album from Decca Gold. (NY Phil’s first album with van Zweden contained Beethoven 5 and 7, taken from performances prior to his advent as music director.)

Magically, I imagined neither a doomed T. Rex nor a doomed virgin. Instead, I was caressed by the score’s dissonance and irregular stresses and rhythms (which, along the avant-garde nature of the dance was enough to cause a near riot at its premiere). If anything shocks now, it’s how startlingly original the music is and, even more, how it has stood the test of time since it thrust classical music into the modern era. Sure, there have been many fine recordings, but I can actually sense van Zweden taking his time with passages in order to make metrically penetrating movements stand out even more; as such, the blood-pumping entrances are a bit scary, which I love. What was once a fin de siècle shocker remains so today. Truly, I am most impressed.

This immense, significant rendering is a substantial beginning for this new and terribly exciting relationship, which also gives us a palpable, penetrating, and prominent La Mer. Debussy’s instrumental inventiveness and depth continue to be astonishingly multidimensional. This is a coup considering how the field is swarming with different interpretations of this masterpiece.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps; Debussy’s La Mer
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden
Decca Gold
17 tracks | 59:18 | released on February 22, 2019
available on Amazon and iTunes

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