DEBUSSY La Mer STRAVINSKY Rite of Spring (van Zweden)
Jaap van Zweden took up his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic at the start of this season, an appointment which seeks to breathe new life – and some much-needed fire – into an orchestra that could sometimes slump into mediocrity under Alan Gilbert. This disc features two works taken from concerts at the start of van Zweden’s tenure: The Rite of Spring from his opening programme and La mer a few weeks later in October.
It’s a disc that reveals the current qualities of the NY Phil: weighty brass that packs a punch; rounded woodwind tone, particularly principal clarinettist Anthony McGill; powerful strings. The orchestra also recorded The Rite under Gilbert in the 2012 13 season, released on its own label. Van Zweden’s account is more exciting and marginally swifter – especially in Part 2 – but both are limited by the dry, dull acoustic of David Geffen Hall. The ‘Augurs of Spring’ are taken rather steadily and emphatically and the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ has plenty of weight. Zweden caresses the Introduction to Part 2, allowing the New York woodwinds room to breathe.
It’s not as incisive as another of his predecessors, Leonard Bernstein on Sony, but this an enjoyable reading – and one you’d be very happy to encounter in the concert hall. Until, that is, you turn to van Zweden’s previous recording with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor from 2005 to 2012. Closely recorded on Exton, it’s a Rite to rip your nerves, far more brutal than the New Yorkers in Stravinsky’s savagery, particularly the explosive timpani.
Van Zweden’s La mer is spacious and lacking in incident, painting Debussy’s triptych with an Impressionist wash. There’s some nice playing, particularly from the sweet-toned cellos (4'43") in the first movement, but the majesty of the noonday sun is limp. Bernstein’s recording is tauter; but for a really scintillating seascape from the NY Phil, listen to them under Guido Cantelli in a 1954 concert, released for streaming on the orchestra’s own Historic Broadcasts label.