Simon Rattle has recorded all three of these works by Stravinsky before – The Rite of Spring twice previously, in 1977 and 1987, with the National Youth Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony, respectively – and this year’s centenary of the premiere of the Rite was an obvious cue for him to return to that score again. All three performances are taken from concerts in the Berlin Philharmonie, with that of the Rite recorded just last November, though there’s no detectable trace of an audience on the disc.
The performances all have the sense of utter security, tonal depth and fabulous dynamic range that are characteristic of the Berlin Philharmonic in Rattle’s era; as magnificent as it is as an aural experience, that can be a bit of mixed blessing, particularly in The Rite of Spring. The Berliners are so much on top of their parts that there is something almost too secure about the result; a performance of the most startlingly revolutionary score in 20th-century music without at least some frisson of danger is lacking something vital. Rattle never really goes for the jugular either. For all his superb pacing and control, and the perfect sifting of every texture, it’s hard to believe that this is music originally intended to be danced to a scenario that ends in blood sacrifice; however impressive the musical edifice, it never shocks or shakes you.
The greatest of Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballets, Apollon Musagète, gets similar deluxe treatment, with what sounds like a full orchestral complement of strings rather than the 34 players specified in the score. The textures are plush rather than muscular, the rhythms not always as tightly sprung as they might be, though the final Apotheosis is wonderfully expressive. Here and in the Rite, Rattle conducts the revisions of the scores that Stravinsky published after the second world war, but in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments he opts for the original version of the work from 1920, with alto flute and alto clarinet among the 24-piece ensemble.
It’s a superbly judged performance, with just the right balance between individuality in the wind playing and immaculate ensemble; technically, if not always musically, this is a fine disc.