Bernard’s Stunning New “Rite of Spring” & “Firebird Suite”


STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps). Firebird Suite (first version, 1919) / Park Avenue Chamber Symphony; David Bernard, cond / Recursive Classics RC2058479

This CD came to me via the direct intercession of conductor David Bernard, who has said his recording contained no less that “thousands” of corrections and emendations that deviate from the published scores. And apparently, The Rite of Spring suffered from this problem much more than others.

I wrote to David Bernard asking him if Stravinsky himself had used the corrupted score or the original manuscript when he made his own first recording of the Rite in 1929. Here’s what he wrote me:

After its premiere in 1913 (performed from manuscript), the score was published in 1921 and a full set of orchestra materials was published in 1929, which is likely the edition that was used by Stravinsky and Monteux in their recordings.  After this, Boosey & Hawkes corrected The Rite twice—in 1947 and again in 1967. Yet despite all this attention, the 1967 materials for The Rite still contained a considerable number of errors.

In 2000, Kalmus published a new edition based on the 1929 edition that was used by Stravinsky and Monteux in their recordings, referencing the manuscript score and eight other sources.  This edition corrected over 21,000 errors in the score an parts of the 1929 edition, and became the primary source for orchestras at that time.  In preparation for our recording, I worked on the new 2015 edition with Clinton Nieweg and Kalmus, correcting thousands of additional errors and inconsistencies related to articulation, pitch, dynamics and doubling. The resulting edition the best current source for performing the work.

The Firebird Suite from 1919 has similar challenges.  In creating the 1919 suite for a smaller orchestra than the original ballet, Stravinsky was forced to re-orchestrate portions of the ballet quickly, leaving considerable errors in the materials.  Kalmus published a corrected edition in 1989, but this only went so far in correcting the errors and did not re-engrave the materials, leaving the parts with the difficult to read original “manuscript” engraving.  Following my work on The Rite, I worked with Kalmus on the 2016 edition of The Firebird 1919 Suite which corrected over 5,000 errors and re-engraved all materials—both the score and the parts. 

The proof, of course, is in the listening, and even within the first two minutes of this new performance of The Rite of Spring even I could hear at least a dozen things different in the score. Very often, it seemed to me that the texture was much sparser than usual, whereas in other places it was just different-sounding.

One of the things that kept going through my mind was, With this sparser original scoring, most of the music must really have been inaudible at the world premiere in 1913, when the Parisian audience booed loudly through the whole performance. Why does this matter? Because it probably explains why Stravinsky, and his original conductor of the work, Monteux, were willing to use a “corrupted” edition for their own performances and recordings.

Another thing that kept coming into my mind as the performance progressed was that the music sounded weirder and more dissonant than even the somewhat weird and dissonant version we are used to. And I don’t think you have to be an expert on Sacre to hear these differences, just someone who has heard two or three other recordings of it. I have four: the first Stravinsky version cited above, with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in 1929; Monteux’s remake with the Boston Symphony from 1945 (his own 1929 recording is just too messy and wrongly-played for my taste), Kent Nagano’s wonderful recording with the London Philharmonic, and Robert Craft’s version of the 1967 score with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I still wonder why, in his later years, Stravinsky himself didn’t intercede when the 1967 edition, reportedly “based on the original score,” was being put together, but he didn’t. An odd inconsistency for a man who was normally a stickler for having his music performed exactly as written, but there you are.

Despite using a full orchestra of 100 musicians (see the photo below of the live performance, and don’t let the moniker “Chamber Symphony” fool you…as Bernard has told me, his orchestra varies in size from 40 to 100 musicians depending on the demands of the scores), the edgy sound of the music and the basically “thin” orchestral texture kept leaping out at me. Even Valery Gergiev’s performance of this score with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra about a decade ago sounded richer in texture than this, as do the recordings of Nagano and Craft. Particularly in the scurrying background winds and strings, this Rite of Spring sounds much like an invasion of giant crawling insects. I know that’s not a pleasant image to conjure up, but that’s what it sounds like.

Park Ave Chamber Symph

An interesting side note: not only in the rehearsals for the world premiere (excellently recreated in the otherwise dreadful film on Vaclav Nijinsky made back in the 1990s) but also in rehearsals with orchestras throughout the 1920s, Stravinsky was forever reading from the score and shouting out the numerous tempo and rhythm changes to his dancers and orchestras. If you’ve ever seen a score of Rite, even the standard 1989 Kalmus edition, you’ll know why. These changes occur once every bar or every other bar in the score, almost continuously. This was one reason why Arturo Toscanini, who greatly admired Rite of Spring but felt himself unable to memorize and conduct the score, became skeptical of Stravinsky’s musical skills since even he, the composer, couldn’t memorize it. Considering how amazingly different so many sections of this new score sound—in note choices and rhythm as well as in texture—there’s a distinct possibility that Stravinsky just let the “corrupted” score be because, crazy as this sounds, it’s easier to play than this original manuscript edition. I take Bernard at his word regarding the 21,000 errors in the score. I could hear hundreds myself with the naked ear, and I admit not knowing the score as intimately as a professional orchestral musician would. The difficulty factor in performing this edition just increased by tenfold in my estimation. As tricky as the corrupted version is to play, this one is far trickier, largely because the sounds you hear dot not line up or synchronize in the mind as well as the standard performing editions did.

There are, then, two conclusions one can draw from this recording. The first is that, as of right now, this is THE preferred recording of Rite because of its authenticity as well as the almost startling boldness of approach. The second is that, from this point on, all future performances of this score should follow Bernard’s lead and use this version. Even in his very polished and well-rehearsed performance, the almost brutal rawness of the music comes across like a menacing steamroller. Absolutely none of it reaches your comfort level, as some sections of the corrupt edition do. You’re always on the edge of your seat because the music is always on edge.

With the Firebird Suite, I have an older performance of the standard score conducted by Bernard to compare to it. This one also has sparser textures: note even in the opening, the strings seem (to my ears, at least) less richly scored. Why do I believe this is authentic? Because this comes very close to the kind of scoring Stravinsky used in 1911 with Petrouchka, or even in his early opera The Nightingale. Early Stravinsky was a clean break with the lush orchestral sounds created by his teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, even in the somewhat Rimsky-influenced Fireworks. Stravinsky moved towards what I would almost call a “metallic” sound in his orchestras, emphasizing the brightness of winds and brass and de-emphasizing a warm string sound.

Do I miss the warmth of the standard edition? In this case, yes, a little. Although it is authentic I am not fully satisfied by the sound here, simply because Firebird is a more melodic work, and in the most melodic passages my mind is constantly filling in the lusher string sound of the standard edition. Not that I like, or want, a Hollywood-style orchestra playing this (or, to be more precise, a Leopold Stokowski-style orchestra), but since the music itself is tuneful it just seems to cry out for a less “cool” sound than it receives here. Just my personal aesthetic speaking.

On the other hand, once the music leaves the Romantic early section and moves into the more aggressive tempos of the later music, I liked some of these sparser textures a bit more. They give more “bite” to the music, and once again, you’ll notice all kinds of little changes, although in this case more in the accompanying figures than in the lead line. The best solution, for me, would be to used a bit more of the older scoring in the opening section but stick closer to the corrected edition here for the later sections. As a sidelight, I also felt that the orchestra had a little more difficulty getting into the spirit of this score than they did in The Rite of Spring. The performance does not lack forward momentum or crisp attacks, but just misses the oomph that Artur Rodziński, André Cluytens (in a GREAT live radio performance from the 1950s) and even earlier David Bernard gave it.

Still, you need to hear this version if only for interest’s sake. As a whole, this is clearly the standout version of Rite to own but at present just an alternate edition of Firebird. Perhaps, as the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony becomes more comfortable with it, their future performances will have all the gusto you desire.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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