Recording of the Month – March 2016

The first time I heard Greek-born, Russian-based conductor Teodor Currentzis and his period-instrument ensemble and chamber choir MusicAeterna was in 2009, when they recorded Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for the Alpha label. Like many other listeners I was immediately struck by the passion, excitement and sheer craziness of the performances Currentzis elicited from a line-up that included soprano Simone Kermes and baritone Dimitris Tiliakos.

Currently Artistic Director of the Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Currentzis has since gone on to make original and highly-praised recordings of the music of Rameau, Mozart and Shostakovich. Now we have an equally distinctive recording of Stravinsky’s revised 1947 version of The Rite of Spring. It, too, has already garnered much critical acclaim; though there are dissenting voices, with Kate Molleson in the Guardian calling it “all too easy, too knowing”.

Perhaps Molleson was expecting some kind of Gergiev-like turn (the Russian conductor’s ferociously muscular 2001 recording with the Kirov Orchestra is certainly among my favourites) from a conductor who has a reputation for being something of an iconoclast and for wanting to shake classical music up a bit?

The Rite of Spring is already an iconoclast work, the atavistic power of which has lost none of its ability to thrill, if not shock. So it’s not always necessary to gild the prehistoric lily, and if there was one orchestral work in which Currentzis would choose to rein in his natural propensity for playing the wild boy of classical music it would be this one. 

What we actually have is a Rite that combines Gergiev’s barbarism with Boulez’s suaveness and precision, and the transparency and litheness of François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (whose wonderful 2014 period-instrument recording of Stravinsky’s original 1913 version is another favourite). In other words, it’s the best of all possible worlds.

So, in the introduction to Part I, the bassoon and clarinets fold into a vegetative lushness of erotic suppleness before Currentzis unleashes a weighty yet buoyant series of thumping chords in The Augurs of Spring with a bracing briskness. This points ahead to the tension-filled dialectic between trilling flutes, crashing percussion and strident brass in Spring Rounds and the rushing strings of Dance of the Earth.

Part II is equally convincing, with Currentzis’ unerring theatrical instinct finding in the Introduction’s dissonant woodwinds and muted trumpets and luminous string interjections the seeds of the violence that erupts with such terrific force in the fatal violence of the final Sacrificial Dance.

In short, the only really shocking thing about this highly detailed and sympathetically recorded account is the astonishingly brilliant orchestral playing.