Petatone's new star conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, is turning out to be a bright light in the firmaments and a true find for the good folks at Pentatone. This conductor first caught my attention with a fantastic 2017 Shostakovich collection, which includes an absolutely splendid 1st Symphony. Their Ravel complete Daphnis and Chole awaits my attention in the stack, but this new Stravinsky set captured my immediate interest and thus rose to the top of the must-listen-to discs.
Let's get the caveats out of the way first.
What instantly attracted me to this set was the inclusion of the lesser-recorded ballets, Jeu de cartes (Game of Cards) and Agon. Both are totally genius mid-life Stravinsky, and a most-welcome change from the earlier, more famous ballets. Also included is the enchanting and alluring Concerto in D (a "Sinfonietta" for Strings in all but name), and the newly discovered Funeral Song from 1909, which received its premier recording last year from Chailly and Decca. The caveat? Well, I was dismayed to see yet another Rite of Spring, especially considering everything but that would have neatly fit onto one generously filled, innovative disc (70 minutes). But by insisting upon including the ubiquitous Rite, the program had to be spread onto two much less generously filled, full-priced discs.
I suppose the producers determined the Rite just HAD to be included here for two reasons: 1) Pentatone's recent Rite offering from Andres Orozco-Estrada was a routine, perfunctory reading which sorely needed to be improved upon, and, 2) the Rite sells records and Agon doesn't. I get that. Fortunately, as it turns out, this Rite is mostly excellent (more below), so I guess I can accept paying for two discs rather than just one.
The second caveat is regarding the recording itself. The works on these discs were recorded in two different sessions, months apart - and that is apparent from disc to disc. Disc one is transferred at a significantly lower volume than is disc two, thus losing some sheer impact in the Rite. It's also less spacious and presents a flatter perspective, with less hall ambiance. As a matter of fact, I even hear some odd balances, perhaps from carelessly placed microphones. For example, the trombones and clarinets (and violas, at times) are thrillingly projected in the mix, while the percussion and trumpets are backwardly balanced and rather weak - which is not beneficial in The Rite of Spring! Another more serious drawback to this otherwise splendid Rite is the bass drum, which plays such an important role all through the work - and not just in the slam-to-the-gut blasts, but also in the many pianissimo sections where it should add a delicious "pillowy" shutter of color (e.g. the "Spring Rounds" in the First Part, and the opening of the Second). As recorded here, it sounds like it's a large empty cardboard box being struck ("thud"). And the pianissimo "puffs" are inaudible. Otherwise, this Rite is nearly perfectly conceived, with perfectly chosen tempos and a thrilling feel of the dance. Overall it is fast, energetic, richly colorful and very exciting (quite the opposite of the ho-hum version mentioned above conducted by Orozco-Estrada). But do remember do give the volume dial a big boost before settling into it.
The softer-focused recording perspective works better in Funeral Song. This performance is much more involving than Chailly's disappointing premier recording on Decca, which plodded along uneventfully and without much interest. Gimeno brings a more organic, colorful, flowing sense of direction to the work. And Pentatone provides a much more transparent sonic picture than Decca's dark, thick textures for Chailly. It is much more musically coherent in Gimeno's hands. No, it's still not a lost masterpiece, but it does now at least sound like Stravinsky!
Getting on to disc two, matters continue to improve, impress and delight. The recording is much better in every regard. It is more firmly focused, "present" and realistic. It is airier, clearer, and more naturally balanced. And Gimeno's incisive approach to these later ballets brings enormous rewards. Everywhere, the playing of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg is exemplary - refined and effortlessly virtuosic. And Gimeno exhibits a natural flair and real feel for the variety of moods and color - and most importantly, tempo. These scores unfold with such natural, unfussy, musical flow, they make more sense than usual and are at once more involving and much more exciting too. The feel of the dance, especially in Jeu de cartes, is infectiously invigorating. And Pentatone cannot be praised highly enough for such spectacular sound.
In sum, this is a splendid release. I've already listened to it, in its entirety, 3 times, which almost never happens! Gimeno brings these less-familiar Stravinsky scores to life in a way few others have. Hopefully they can replace that cardboard box with a real bass drum on future recordings.