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Reviews: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka - Litton

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Reviews: 6

Site review by Castor April 4, 2011
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by krisjan March 23, 2011 (10 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by JJ April 14, 2011 (5 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
First performed in 1913 in Paris under the direction of Pierre Monteux, The Rite of Spring by Igor Strawinsky is a ballet in two parts based on Russian peasantry. The argument is defined by the composer himself in his biography: “I suddenly had the vision of a great sacral pagan rite, with two wise men seated in a circle observing the death dance of a young girl they are sacrificing to make the god of spring more favorable to them.” The first part, called “The kiss of the earth” is, as the second, “The great sacrifice,” made up of incantations and games related to the rite in question. With a large orchestra, the Russian composer transports us to the heart of a universe of barbarous legends animated by multi-colored rhythms. The ballet in four scenes, “Petrouchka” (here in the original version from 1911) was revised in 1947. At the head of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton gives us a version of the Rite unparalleled in its focus and remarkable in its orchestral detail. The result wonderfully translates the mystery of the argument of the ballet and literally plunges us in the heart of the ritual. The same can be said for Petrouchka, whose verve and colors remain stamped on us. Here is a landmark SACD in a sound recording that is fascinating and dazzling.

Jean-Jacques Millo
Translation Lawrence Schulman

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Review by Jonalogic April 14, 2011 (8 of 12 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I had to get back from vacation before auditioning and reviewing this, but I'm glad to report it was worth the wait.

The thing that most impressed me immediately about these performances was the music-making. Petrushka is a particularly difficult piece to carry off, both interpretationally and technically, Here it receives a most sensitive and expressive reading, superbly played. Litton and his orchestra are particularly strong in characterising the individual tableaux. The whole reading has a nicely balletic feel, yet broad Slavic humour and mordant dry wit are also present in abundance.

I haven't enjoyed a performance as much since Haitink's mid-70's reading with the LPO. It's that good.

The Rite is equally fine. The balletic feel is much in evidence again, but Litton resists the temptation to go 'Rite-lite' and bland (like the Jarvi, Nott and Jansons readings, for instance). There is plenty of power and savagery here when appropriate, and the 'shock of the new' - such an important foundation of this revolutionary piece - is well evidenced throughout. This piece was meant to shock - and it does here.

Although both the classic Stravinsky and Boulez Rites are available on SACD, these are mega-rare and - how shall we put it politely? - presented in decidedly non-vintage analogue sound. So Litton's Rite goes straight to the top of the tree.

In both pieces, it is clear that Litton and his orchestra have really thought out these pieces from scratch; certainly there is none of the laziness and under-characterisation of many modern performances. At the same time, extremely transparent sound, combined with superb internal balancing, mean that you hear very complex internal music-making with great clarity and directness.

OK, the performances are fine- what about the sound? I am glad to report this is definitely one of BIS's very best. As already mentioned, the first thing that strikes me about this recording is its high degree of transparency. There is also plenty of air and stage, together with staggering dynamic range. So, that's got to be 5 stars, then.

If I were being hyper-crtitical sonically, I would also say:

1) It's a bit hi-fi; the bass drum is exciting but not particularly - to my ears - how one would hear it in the concert hall. In short, I agree with krisjan that it's a bit 'in yer face'.

2) There are too many mikes for my taste; but the spot-lighting, as is usual with BIS, is sensitively handled. If you're going to multi-mike, at least do it like this.

3) There is a trace of PCM-itis on high strings and percussion.

But let's not go there, shall we? Only a fuss-pot like me would even mention these issues.

Bottom line - super readings, fine sound. Strongly recommended, therefore. I can't wait for their Firebird..!

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Review by Ernani71 May 5, 2011 (10 of 19 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is not the volcanic performance of the Rite I was hoping for. Extra bass can't make up for a lack of brutality. The percussionist (actually, I think there should be two of them, but I'll treat them as one) is a great disappointment. He's almost dainty. Yes, the bass is deep, yes it's loud. But it's not how loud it sounds that makes the difference; it's HOW he STRIKES the drum head that I find a great annoyance. It might give all you old fogies at a heart attack to hear how I want this piece played, but Litton's conducting, no matter how skillful, is weak, weak, weak! We need someone with more courage (like Stravinsky himself).

As I listened to Petrushka, which is placed first on the disc, I was immediately impressed by the playing of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a good piece to hear the members individually, and one by one they took to the spotlight with aplomb. On the negative side, I found myself missing the expressivity of Stravinsky's version, which brings the character of Petrushka much more to life.

At first I was shocked by how good the sonics are on this BIS disc. Each instrument is clearly delineated in a beautifully laid-out soundstage. I was also struck by how smooth and warm the sound is, and by the excellent dynamics. Unfortunately, as I kept listening, something began grating on me. This is a recording that just begs you to reach for the potentiometer and turn the volume up. However, doing so revealed a slight harshness, particularly during the thickest passages.

No, this is not my ideal Rite, not by far, even though I'm glad I listened to it. I already have listened to it several times. I like it less and less, despite all there is to admire.

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Review by jeff3948 June 8, 2011 (8 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I found Litton did a very good job with Sacre. The Bergen Philharmonic is very good but not quite up to the standards of the great orchestras and it shows when the orchestra struggles in certain areas. Secondly, Litton's accents and phrasing are generally very good, however sometimes they are not heavy enough, barbaric enough or varied enough. Sometimes they just don't seem to contribute well to the drama as other conductors have been able to do. Also, at times Litton goes too slow or too fast and at times the transitions are not smooth, so the work does not flow as well as it should. To Littons' strengths, he does give us subtleties that other conductors do not give us. These subtleties I really enjoyed for the first time. Litton's performance of Petrushka is a little less successful then Sacre was. It is a little bit less dramatic compared to others (See Other Recommended recordings below). Litton gives us some nice nuances but does not succeed as well in the overall arching drama and does not reveal as well as he should the tensions and contrasts in the drama. Some areas like at the beginning, The Shrovetide Fair, is a little too slow for my taste, the hustle and bustle of a fair is a little lost. However, I don't want to seem too critical, these performances are good ones.

Overall this recording is superb with a beautiful warm sound with the winds, strings, brass, percussion all sounds lush, expecially the string basses. It's in 5.0 channel surround with the orchestra in the front and the rear channels are used for hall ambiance only. However there are a few minor pitfalls. The winds are spread to far to the left and right channels, they should be more toward the center. Some of the winds sound as if they are sitting in the first violin section and others sound too far to the right. I'm also just a little disappointed with the BIS engineers at capturing the bass drum. The bass drum is missing the reverberation of the lower fundamental frequency that shakes your pant legs around your ankles. My live experience with the bass drum sitting in Symphony Center (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) is that when the Bass drum is whacked you initially feel it in your gut then the reverberation of the hall produces the lower fundamental frequency which is around 50Hz which you feel vibrate your pants around your ankles. With this BIS recording I get the gut impact but not the reverberation. The problem could be the relatively dead hall acoustics. Only two recordings out of all 10 recordings I have of Sacre do this correctly and they happen to be superb performances and recordings as well (See Other Recommended Recordings below):

Other Recommended Recordings:
My Number 1 Sacre choice: Professor Johnson's who captured the best orchestral recording in 2 channel stereo I have ever heard. Sacre conducted by Que on Reference Recordings on HDCD and on HRx (HRx is a full 24bit 176.4kHz WAV file from the original high speed analog master tape copied to a DVD-R data disc. You transfer the file to your computer. I then made a DVD-Audio disc using Cirlinca HD-Audio Solo Ultra software ( in the full 24bit 176.4kHz WAV high definition sound so I could play it in my Denon Universal player). Even though Que's performance is slower than most, he is able to retain the tensions in these works, so much so that this is for me the most dramatic and best recorded of all recordings (Bass drum is better captured than Litton with the fundamental reverberation, overhang as some call it, there that is present when being there live in person.) I have sent a question to Reference Recordings asking them what analog recorder was used and at what speed as I have never heard bass this good from an analog source. [Update 6/15/2011: I just received a reply from Reference Recordings regarding the source tape used. Here is their answer: "At the session it was recorded digitally (we used those digital files for the CD release) and on analogue tape. We decided the analog tape was the best master to use for issuing the HRx version of this title, and soon we will issue an LP as well!
Prof. Johnson made his own tape recorder decades ago, which he has used for many, many outstanding recordings on our label and a few others. The machine has focus-gap heads of his own design, is a 3-channel machine, running 1/4 inch tape at 15 ips. The EQ is non-standard and the tapes can only be played back on this machine. We never use any signal-to-noise processors like Dolby or DBX."]: , for the HRx Version look for HR-70 in the second row here>:
Another good Sacre is the L.A. Philharmonic’s SACD (24bit/96kHz PCM transfered to DSD) with Salonen is superb. Salonen captures the tension and barbaric emotion better without going too fast as Litton does sometimes (Bass drum is better captured than Litton with the fundamental reverberation, overhang as some call it, there that is present when being there live in person.)
An excellent regular CD Sacre is Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra:

Here are the best Petrushka's I've found, unfortunately only one is in high definition sound but what a phenomenal surround SACD it is!:
Mackerras on Vanguard SACD in true 5 channel surround sound (reduced to 5 channels from the original 8 track master tape!) recorded in 1973. Mackerras takes a very different and exciting approach than Litton's more laid back interpretation.. This is also the original 1911 version just like Litton's. The orchestra actually surrounds you. From the notes on the recording: "Petrouchka, recorded in Watford Town Hall, London, is an eight-track recording in which the instruments of the orchestra are spread in a large semi-circle on the floor of the hall, with the seats removed. Essentially, the concept of the making of this recording was to create a recording heard from the vantage point of the conductor. In order to make a more plausible balance from the listeners point of view, certian instruments, such as drums and paino, were placed to the rear of the conductor, so that effectively, on this disc, the conductor and the listener as well are placed literally in the center of the orchestra." (i.e. drums and triangle or on the right rear and the piano and bass drum or on the left rear):
On regular CD Bernstein's 1958 recording with the New York Phil is still one of the most dramatic performances:
Antal Dorati is superb drama!:
Colin Davis is very good but the winds are spread too far to the left and right again as in Litton's recording:
Skrowaczewski, one of the best available!!:

If anyone has any other suggestions, I'd love to hear about them.

I do recommend this Litton SACD for the overall realistic effect that SACD brings to the orchestra, and the good performances, however this performance does lack some drama that others have given these works, so I give this an overall 4 stars out of 5 star rating. NOTE: You'll need to turn your volume way up to about -16db or -18db on a Denon receiver to get full realistic performance volume with this BIS SACD multi-channel recording.

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