DEBUSSY La Mer STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring (Gatti)
Noisy demonstrations at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky to have to furiously shout out the numbers from the wings to the dancers on stage, who could no longer hear the orchestra. Fast forward to ‘The Glorification of the Chosen One’ in the Royal Concertgebouw’s filmed performance (64'45") and you’ll catch the second timpanist also furiously counting. It’s a sign that the work still holds its occasional terrors, although it’s about the only moment in the RCO’s polished account under chief conductor Daniele Gatti.
The playing is rhythmically taut but – timpanist apart – there’s little sense of actual peril in Amsterdam. Everything is plush, from the silky bassoon opening to the dusky alto flute. Gatti is no slouch – his reading comes in at the same sort of timing as Teodor Currentzis on his zinging MusicAeterna recording – but it’s all a bit predictable and safe. For more danger, try Krzysztof Urbański and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. Their new release contains not one but two performances: a CD made in December 2016 (before the new Elbphilharmonie opened) and then a concert filmed the following February which is added on a Blu ray disc. Two months apart, they’re remarkably similar, taken at a marginally more measured tempo than Gatti but feeling much more cataclysmic.
Urbański is quite the cool dude – hair spiked, tie not quite done up – and allows his bassoonist free rein to begin without any up beat, which he does with the longest held opening note I’ve heard, before coiling into a truly mournful wail. Urbański draws thrilling playing from his orchestra, which strikes me as a much more exciting partnership than Gatti’s with the RCO. There’s real grit and a sense that they are playing out of their skins, grinding out something urgent and earthy. They are helped by Michael Valentin’s video direction where, apart from some deliberate blurring, quick cuts between camera shots give a restless feel. One camera is seemingly placed at the foot of the bass drum percussionist, providing an unusual but fun perspective. Ultimately, would you pay full price for two near-identical performances of The Rite? Well, at full price Sony offers just the one audio performance under Currentzis, but I’d still happily pay for it, so why not?
Gatti’s Rite is preceded by two Debussy favourites, a long and languorous Faune, opening with a gorgeous flute solo from Emily Beynon, and an account of La mer where Gatti revels in the slow ecstasies of the piece but the lack of momentum is problematic. His readings with the Orchestre National de France (Sony, 8/12) were much livelier. Here, Debussy’s marine triptych is more a wallow in the pool than a bracing swim in La Manche.