The Right Rite?

In May of 1913, just one year before the start of the first World War, Igor Stravinsky premiered his third ballet with the Ballets Russes in Paris: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). The premiere would go down in history for a number of reasons, primarily due to the unruly Parisian audience that descended into what could be referred to as a riot. What was so scandalous about the Rite? Stravinsky, along with choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, wanted to evoke a picture of Russia from the distant, pagan past. A story of an ancient pagan rite where a young maiden would be chosen to dance herself to death to appease the ancestors and secure a bountiful harvest. The music, while stylistically not a huge departure from Stravinsky’s two previous and successful Parisian ballets, was dissonant, brutal, and rhythmically disorienting. Likewise, Nijinsky’s choreography was rigid, and was meant to mimic the flat, two-dimensional style of prehistoric paintings. The audience that night was not having it, but their uproar helped launch the Rite into infamy, helping it to become one of the most talked about and often performed works of the 20th century.

Fast-forward to 1959 when this recording was put to tape, or rather to 35mm film by famed engineer Bert Whyte. Everest, along with Mercury Living Presence were innovators in in the use of 35mm film for recording. The trend never caught on, but that doesn’t mean there were not serious advantages to the format, including increased dynamic range, a higher signal to noise ratio, and minimal wow and flutter. Here Eugene A. Goossens conducts the Rite with the London Symphony Orchestra. Goossens was very active in the mid-twentieth century as both a conductor and composer. He also was the brother of Leon Goossens, the most well regarded oboe soloist of the early 20th century. Goossens however, is most remembered today for a scandal in the mid-50s where he was implicated in an affair with Australian occultist Rosaleen Norton (dubbed “The Witch of King’s Cross”), a press scandal from which his career never fully recovered.

In the mid-2000s, Classic Records reissued some key 35mm titles from the Everest catalog, which proved how good the sound of the film stock was, and just how bad the original Everest pressings were at conveying it. These titles were cut by Bernie Grundman on his all-tube system at the time and released as 33rpm titles. However, Grundman also cut versions at 45rpm, which never received release until now. When Chad Kassem at Acoustic Sounds acquired Classic Records, he also acquired the metal parts for these 45rpm cuts, which have now been released by Analog Productions.

I own a few of these Everest reissues, both in their original 33 and 45 rpm iterations. The sound Bernie Grundman was able to coax out of these 35mm film reels is dynamic, vivid and breathtaking. This particular release is no exception. Bass drum hits and timpani thwacks rocked my listening room. Trumpet calls pierced through from the back of the convincingly-rendered hall, and the trombones menaced their way through the many climactic dance numbers that awaited them. Overall, the sound of this reissue is a sonic delight, determined to put your full-range speakers to the test. And not an overengineered one either I might add. This recording seems to lack the over mic’ing that plagued audiophile orchestral recordings in following decades (hello London Phase 4?). Unfortunately, the film appears to be stretched or warped in some way at the very start of the introduction, somewhat ruining the principal bassoons’ opening solo. There was also a bit of a recessed violin/viola sound, but it was difficult to determine if this was a recording issue or a performance issue, the latter of which are unfortunately common in this instance.

It’s strange to think about the fact that this recording was made in a time closer to the premier of this work than it is to our present day. I say this to point out that the Rite was considered astonishingly difficult when it first appeared, and although orchestras breeze through it nowadays, in the middle of the 20th century it likely was still considered a challenge. Back at the Manhattan School of Music, my Woodwind-Brass lab teacher, trumpeter Mark Gould once made a poor bassoonist play the opening solo a half step up in pitch, saying that the piece was “too easy” now, and everyone plays it too well. The goal was to make it hard again, as it would have been back in the day! But I digress…

The London Symphony Orchestra were certainly capable of greatness during this period in the 50s, the famed Dorati Firebird serves as a prime example. However, the performance here with Goossens at the helm suffers from strange artistic choices and some inconsistent playing. The “Augers of Spring” early on in the first part is almost anemic, and lacks any bite during the accented beats. In fact, if there is one overarching theme I can use to summarize this recording, it is primarily that it is too slow and dull in interpretation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hints of greatness, however. The French Horns and Trombones all have stellar tutti features and sound at the top of their game, the concertmaster has some finely played solo sections, and the flutes provide a wide pallet of colors easily conveyed through the detailed soundstage. However, the orchestra is often held down by sloppy and out of tune playing from the rest of the woodwinds and strings that bungle their entrances, and for when it matters, a general tendency for the orchestra to not be entirely cohesive or together.

Perhaps I am being too hard on this particular performance, but if I am, it’s because listeners are blessed with a wealth of great recordings available, including on vinyl. From just one year earlier we have the excellent (and fiery) 1958 Bernstein/New York venture that was reissued back in 2013 in AAA sound cut by Ryan Smith, and the slightly more measured but equally excellent Solti/Chicago outing on Decca. If you have yet to own a copy on vinyl of the Rite of Spring, those are the two recordings I would recommend hearing first. However, if you already have one or two solid versions of this piece, it might pay off to give this audiophile edition a go, it is sonically better than either of the versions I mentioned, and it might provide a slightly different insight into a piece that has now become “standardized” both in the repertory and in terms of interpretation.

Michael Johnson is a Phoenix, AZ based oboist and audio writer. He is currently a member of the Tucson Symphony, and performs regularly with the Phoenix Symphony and Arizona Opera. He is a contributing writer at Audiophilia.com and maintains a vinyl-focused youtube channel by the name of PoetryOnPlastic. You can follow his vinyl journey on Instagram at instagram.com/poetryonplastic

COMMENTS
Elubow's picture

Let’s have more of these from Michael. And a classical review, for a change, on this website. It’s about time! (Yes, Michael Fremer has done a few). How about some more of the Everest catalogue? I have most of them and was very impressed with the sound. I’ll settle for Living Stereo, Living Presence, London - whatever. Keep ‘em coming!

Neward Thelman's picture

Totally agree. It's about time for real [classical] music reviews on this site, with an evaluation of the sonics of recordings.

I vote for a complete survey of the Everest catalog. Back in the day, Everests were regarded as sine qua non.

More classical reviews from music experts, such as Michael Leser Johnson. His review is informative and enjoyable.

More, please.

melody maker's picture

The good old 90s Hoffman/DCC LP of Stokowski’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini” will convince any doubters of Everest recording quality! And there are a few budget 70s Sine Qua Non pressings of Everest catalog that rock, including Goosens’ LSO performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” (which in my opinion is a much better piece of music than the shock-value “Rite of Spring”).

melody maker's picture

... and I'd love to read more.

I wonder if Michael reversed his ratings for music and sound up at the beginning of the article? I don't think his descriptions of the sound match the "11" on the "sound" knob up top. And while I'd give the "Rite" a 7 (if that) on my personal "music" knob, most classical lovers rate it higher... maybe that 7 was meant for the sound, given Michael's comments on warped-sounding 35mm film.

cdvinyl's picture

This premiere was included in a Canadas CBC radio 1 music series called "20-pieces-of-music-that-changed-the-world". I believe for licensing reasons it is only available to the Canadian market. If it is available for those folks outside of Canada I highly encourage to listen to all 20 episodes.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/20-pieces-of-music-that-changed-the-worl...

Trius's picture

Most CBC Radio 1 broadcasts are available internationally. Other CBC channels may be restricted.

I haven’t listened to Sunday Morning for some time, but in the past always enjoyed the “music that changed the world” segments. So thanks for the reminder - I listened to the Sacré du Printempts piece and it was, as usual, enjoyable and really informative. Thanks!

Intermediate Listener's picture

Also Everest 35 mm with LSO and Malcolm Sargent is great! But so is Ormandy on Colombia/Speakers Corner.

xtcfan80's picture

Michael.... Agree with you on the Everest vinyl quality AND that this Rite performance is just so so.... 35mm film had some great potential.....some great Mercury Living Presence titles....

calebjkeen's picture

Thanks for the review - I appreciated the historical background on the piece and various other releases as well as your take on this release itself. I'm a subscriber to your YouTube channel and am glad to see you contributing here as well!

RinziRadio's picture

I'm not familiar with this performance, but I'm not surprised by your verdict. I have a number of the Classic Records Everest releases and while the sound is excellent, and as you have described, the performances are not all of the first league. One exception is the record of excerpts from Gayaneh which is a delight (not surprisingly, since Fistoulari was consistently excellent in this kind of repertoire). I follow your YouTube channel too, and bought that Bernstein CBS reissue of "The Rite....." on your recommendation. It's really good, but doesn't quite displace my favorite on vinyl: Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphia on EMI - also available in an excellent reissue on Mobile Fidelity (which also did an excellent job on his Pictures/Firebird suite LP). I must say I love the Tilson Thomas Rite on DGG, available now in an excellent SACD from Pentatone. Great to have some classical reviews on this site - more please!!!

melody maker's picture

… on the power of the Muti “Rite.” Not my favorite Stravinsky work, but this is one hell of a powerful performance, even on the $4 Angel pressing I own. Which shows the level of priority I give to this piece… however, I sure do prize my Ansermet “Fairy’s Kiss” on London; Vlach “Apollon Musagète” on Gramofonovy Klub (and the same work done by Marriner on Argo in great sound); and a whole bunch of performances of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, “Petrouchka”: Ansermet, Goosens, Monteux, and maybe the greatest, Oscar Danon on the Readers Digest LP box (decent reissue from Chesky).

jazz's picture

unfortunately are quite common with those Everest reissues (Classic, Speakers Corner) in my experience, even over long periods and up to making some more or less unlistenable (e.g. a Villa Lobos).

Unbelievable for me not having had this mentioned in various rave reviews. Fortunately you mentioned it.

And there was a 45RPM Classic Records Clarity release already available (Corroborree, I have it), so it’s not the first time now Chad releases 45 RPM Everest.

DDManace's picture

Thanks for the review! Informative and expert review, as always.
I adore Stravinsky so I’ll get involved briefly:)
In my opinion, from an audiophile perspective, the best Rite is the one from RR (Solti and Dorati on Speakers Corner are also great).
However I would love “Joe Hisaishi & Tokyo Symphony Orchestra” on vinyl;)
In general, almost all of Chad’s jazz releases are masterpeaces, while for releases in classical music I can’t say that and I’m not that thrilled (except legendary Mercury/ClassicRec. editions).

Naun's picture

Really nice to see a POV that balances the preoccupations of audiophile vinyl subculture with more purely musical considerations. Some reissues, like the Bernstein Rite that Michael mentions, reflect choices made on the basis of musical value more so than sound quality. And for every recording that gets on the release schedule of an audiophile label there are inevitably dozens of equally deserving ones that don't. (Not complaining about this, it's just a reality that audiophile reissues are a niche market with its own prerogatives.) Over on Michael's youtube channel he talks in a really engaging way about some of these great old recordings, not just the Living Stereos and so forth, but also a bunch of well-known and not-so-well-known recordings prized by classical collectors. I hope vinyl enthusiasts starting out on classical will give his videos a look.

Neward Thelman's picture

Hey - what's Michael Leser Johnson's youtube channel? I can't find it - or him - anywhere on youtube.

Need info.

Naun's picture
melody maker's picture

... And I agree with Naun that you want to strike a balance between musical and audiophile quality if you're a classical lover who prefers analog. While I've learned some things and found some great stuff through the audiophile press, I long ago got tired of the endless recommendations of lightweight fluff, and also of lesser performances of great works in killer (yet pointlessly so!) sound. My Jim Svejda and B.H. Haggin books sit next to my Laura Dearborn and Robert Harley, and the former look more well-thumbed. I guess I fall in the middle: while I revel in great sound, have tons of Londons and RCAs, and don't collect much mono orchestral (it's fine for piano and chamber music), I also go the extra mile for the best pressings of often-mediocre Columbia recordings of Walter and Szell and Bernstein and Richter, because you just gotta have their performances!

SteveRR's picture

I have a bunch of these and I still tend to agree with Gramophone - Rattle and City Of Birmingham

Neward Thelman's picture

nt

Neward Thelman's picture

I've jest looked at the your youtube link.

That nerdy sub-millennial's Michael Leser Johnson? Seriously?

[Has he finished grade school yet?]

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