Stravinsky / The Rite of Spring / Monteux – Our Four Plus Shootout Winner from 2013

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

The ULTIMATE Rite of Spring has arrived. This early pressing takes the sound of the recording to a place we never thought it could go. With Four Pluses (A++++) it’s more than a full grade better than any copy to ever make it to the site. After hearing this copy we had to lower the grade on our supposedly White Hot (but too noisy to sell) reference LP. 

The space and dynamic power of the sound of this side one were something we had never heard before on Stravinsky’s groundbreaking work. Lush when quiet, clear and undistorted when loud, not one Rite of Spring in a hundred can do what this record can!

Well, maybe one…

It Seems Like Only Yesterday…

This shootout has been many years in the making. Some time around 2009 we surveyed the recordings of the work we had on hand, close to a dozen I would think, and found them all wanting, save one: Monteux’s 1956 early stereo recording in Paris for Decca/RCA. So many recordings failed to capture the size, weight and power of the orchestra. Too much multi-miking was ruinous to some; screechy strings and horns to others.

The later recordings we played by Solti, Mehta and their contemporaries were profoundly unnatural, lacking transparency and the relaxed sense of involvement that eases your ability to trick yourself into thinking “you are there”.

We owe a great debt to everyone involved in this recording: Pierre Monteux (click on the tab above); the Paris Conservatoire; John Culshaw, the producer; as well as Kenneth Wilkinson (click on the tab above) and the rest of the Decca engineering staff. If you know much about Golden Age classical recordings, you recognize these names as giants who once strode the earth.

57 years later we continue to be astonished by their achievements.

And the vinyl is exceptionally quiet on this copy, mostly Mint Minus. How many Shaded Dogs in our shootouts play mostly Mint Minus? One out of ten I would guess. And there’s no Inner Groove Distortion either.

Side One

A+++ to A++++, and truly mind boggling in its power to move the listener. The cacophony finally sounds right!

A truly extraordinary recording mastered and pressed beautifully. The string are clear and textured, yet rich and full-bodied. The bottom is big and weighty. The horns are tubey and full-bodied and never screech through even the most difficult passages.

My notes mention that it’s rich and tubey but clear and lively; big, with great energy, and lastly, OFF THE CHARTS top space and ZERO distortion. About as close to live music as I think this piece can sound in my listening room.

Side Two

A+++, White Hot — the only thing that could touch it was this very side one.

Clean and clear, very dynamic and lively, with no smear on the transients whatsoever, yet lush when quiet. Shockingly good in every way.


Table Setup

This is an excellent record for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like. Classical music is really the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge setup (and evaluation). A huge and powerful recording such as this quickly separates the men from the boys stereo-wise. Recordings of this quality are the reason there are $10,000+ front ends in the first place. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you do, this is the record that will show you what you got for your hard-earned money.

Ideally you would want to work your setup magic at home with this record, then take it to a friend’s house and see if you can achieve the same results. I’ve done this sort of thing for years. Sadly, not so much anymore; nobody I know can play records like these the way we can. Playing and critically evaluating records all day, every day, year after year, you get pretty good at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Properly set VTA is especially critical on this record, as it is on most classical recordings. The smallest change will dramatically affect the timbre, texture and harmonic information of the strings, as well as the rest of instruments of the orchestra.

PBS’s Keeping Score

You never know when or where revolutions will start. They can be social or political or artistic. Often, these artistic revolutions—revolutions in taste—seem to predict other changes in society. That’s exactly the case with The Rite of Spring. Igor Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring in 1913. It redefined 20th-century music, much as Beethoven’s Eroica had transformed music a century before.

With it, Stravinsky took himself far into the realm of the unconscious. The music seemed designed with no apparent order but driven by pure gut feeling.

Russian Influences

In turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, everything fashionable seemed to be from anyplace but Russia. The architecture, the music, even the language that the “best” people spoke was French.

But artists of all kinds in Russia revolted against this dependence on European ideas. They wanted to establish a nationalist, Russian identity. A powerful mover among them was Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.

Rimsky had been a member of the so-called “Mighty Handful,” a group of adventurous, original young composers who began writing music that sounded truly Russian. They were inspired by the old myths and epics and fairy tales. And they all used folksongs and chants to give their music a very particular Russian flavor.

Composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov provided lushly orchestrated music that served as the soundtrack for lavish operas and ballets at the imperial theater. But the imperial theater could bog down in bureaucracy and favoritism, stifling the most creative and ambitious artists of the day.

Diaghilev and Paris

Among those artists was Serge Diaghilev, a producer and aesthete with great energy and vision. He believed in the artistic future of all things authentically Russian. In the face of controversy with the imperial theater, Diaghilev went abroad.

Diaghilev knew that Parisian audiences were fascinated by Russian culture, which made Paris the perfect place for Diaghilev’s revolutionary Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev created a new ballet company built on the Parisian fantasies of old Russia. Featuring the exotic, the erotic, and the occult, the Ballets Russes astonished the world in its first season.

For the company’s second season, Diaghilev had promised a daring new ballet, but a crisis loomed when two Russian composers failed to deliver an acceptable score.

Desperate, Diaghilev turned to the young, untried Igor Stravinsky to write the music we now know as The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in 1910. Based on the Slavic myth of a phoenix-like creature who helps a prince triumph over evil, The Firebird was a huge success.

Russian Village Music

Stravinsky wanted to bring music back to the origins of dance. He frequently summered in Ustilug, where he was exposed to the old Russian culture that thrived in villages surrounding his family’s country home.

In the villages, people celebrated the times of planting and harvesting, and the mysteries of gods and fate. Naturally, the villagers celebrated with music, made with whatever they had—their natural, untrained voices, their hands and feet, and instruments which they had often built themselves. The result was a wild, enthusiastic mixture of song and noise.

This kind of music-making made an enormous impression on the young Stravinsky. He wanted to use the sophisticated symphony orchestra to evoke the wild power of village music—the way it sounded and the way it must have felt to the people making it.

The Rite of Spring

By 1913, Paris adored the Ballets Russes, with its lavish productions that star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed. The opulent sets were designed by Nicholas Roerich, and the brilliant scores were written by the now resident composer, Igor Stravinsky.

And then came the most famous opening-night scandal in history: the premiere of The Rite of Spring. As the crowd arrived on opening night, expectations were high.

The Théàtre des Champs Élysées had just opened, and audience members came to see and be seen. Stravinsky was nervous because he knew that avant-garde pieces were risky in Paris.

Decades before, Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser had been booed off the stage at the Opera. But danger was the exciting part. Stravinsky had had great success here in the past with The Firebird and Petrushka.

As the curtain went up and the opening notes were heard, a ruckus broke out in the auditorium. The opening bassoon solo was set so high that the audience didn’t know what instrument they were hearing.

As the lights came up on the first tableau of dancers, people began yelling, and a wilder and wilder shouting match began. It became difficult to hear the music.

As he heard the roar of the audience begin to build, Stravinsky panicked and ran backstage to intervene. By the time he reached the wings, things were in complete chaos.

But the performance continued. Diaghilev may have expected there would be some kind of ruckus at the performance. Unbeknownst to Stravinsky and Nijinsky, he had instructed the conductor, Pierre Monteux, to keep going no matter what happened.

Stravinsky had taken the orchestra, which was associated with high society and culture, and brought it to this carnal, bestial, earthy level. The audience was making so much noise that the dancers could not hear the music and stay in sync.

So Nijinsky climbed on a chair and leaned out so far into the set that Stravinsky had to grab him by his coattails to keep him from falling over.

Amidst the huge racket of the orchestra and the crowd and the pounding of the dancers’ feet, Nijinsky was there yelling out the numbers: 19, 20, 21, 22!

Back to Russian Folk Roots

What did Stravinsky write that was so powerful? He wanted to recreate ancient times, a time of a huge, untouched landscape within which a few tribal people gathered once a year to celebrate their relationship to the earth.

For the raw material, Stravinsky turned to a book that contained all kinds of folksongs with roots in those pagan rituals. Stravinsky knew this music well from his summers in Ustilug.

But he had to figure out what instruments could play these folk sounds. The orchestra is made up of modern instruments of great sophistication. These instruments have no relationship to the instruments that people make with their own hands.

Stravinsky’s solution was to write for the instruments of the modern orchestra in bizarre ways. He pushed them to the extreme heights and depths of their ranges. He put them in uncomfortable positions which resulted in that strained, weird quality he was looking for. He mimicked the authentic village sound by adding grace notes to the lines, which suggested the vocal breaks of untutored singers.

Village dances were made up of teams moving in different patterns. In much the same way, teams of instruments play in the Rite. The alternation of these teams, splitting up to form and reform, maintain the excitement of the piece.

Sometimes the teams alternate, but sometimes they keep playing until they create a huge pile-up of sound, in which no one is willing to stop or give in to anyone else. The point of this is sensory overload, until the conflict takes us to complete burnout.

What makes this piece stand apart from anything written before is the rawness and vitality of the rhythmic elements.

The Rite of Spring may not be as shocking today as it was at that scandalous premiere in 1913, but more than 90 years later, it still has that edgy, intense, almost out-of-control feeling that makes it as exhilarating—and liberating—as music can be.

Wikipedia Notes

The record producer John Culshaw described Monteux as “that rarest of beings – a conductor who was loved by his orchestras … to call him a legend would be to understate the case.” Toscanini observed that Monteux had the best baton technique he had ever seen. Like Toscanini, Monteux insisted on the traditional orchestral layout with first and second violins to the conductor’s left and right, believing that this gave a better representation of string detail than grouping all the violins together on the left. On fidelity to composers’ scores, Monteux’s biographer John Canarina ranks him with Klemperer and above even Toscanini, whose reputation for strict adherence to the score was, in Canarina’s view, less justified than Monteux’s.

According to the biographical sketch in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Monteux “was never an ostentatious conductor … [he prepared] his orchestra in often arduous rehearsals and then [used] small but decisive gestures to obtain playing of fine texture, careful detail and powerful rhythmic energy, retaining to the last his extraordinary grasp of musical structure and a faultless ear for sound quality.” Monteux was extremely economical with words and gestures and expected a response from his smallest movement. Record producer Erik Smith recalled of Monteux’s rehearsals with the Vienna Philharmonic for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Brahms’s Second, “although he could not speak to the orchestra in German, he transformed their playing from one take to the next”.

The importance of rehearsal to Monteux was shown when, in 1923, Diaghilev asked him to conduct Stravinsky’s new Les Noces with no rehearsal, as the composer would already have conducted the first performance, Monteux following on from there. Monteux told the impresario “Stravinsky, ‘e can do what ‘e like, but I have to do what ze composer ‘as written.” Monteux’s self-effacing approach to scores led to occasional adverse comment; the music critic of The Nation, B. H. Haggin, while admitting that Monteux was generally regarded as one of the giants of conducting, wrote of his “repeatedly demonstrated musical mediocrity”. Other American writers have taken a different view. In 1957 Carleton Smith wrote, “His approach to all music is that of the master-craftsman. … Seeing him at work, modest and quiet, it is difficult to realize that he is a bigger box office attraction at the Metropolitan Opera House than any prima donna … that he is the only conductor regularly invited to take charge of America’s ‘big three’ – the Boston, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras.” In his 1967 book The Great Conductors, Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Monteux, “[A] conductor of international stature, a conductor admired and loved all over the world. The word ‘loved’ is used advisedly.” Elsewhere, Schonberg wrote of Monteux’s “passion and charisma”. When asked in a radio interview to describe himself (as a conductor) in one word, Monteux replied, “Damned professional”.

Throughout his career Monteux suffered from being thought of as a specialist in French music. The music that meant most to him was that of German composers, particularly Brahms, but this was often overlooked by concert promoters and recording companies. Of the four Brahms symphonies, he was invited by the recording companies to record only one, the Second. Recordings of his live performances of the First and Third have been released on CD, but the discography in Canarina’s biography lists no recording, live or from the studio, of the Fourth. The critic William Mann, along with many others, regarded him as a “supremely authoritative” conductor of Brahms, though Cardus disagreed: “In German music Monteux, naturally enough, missed harmonic weight and the right heavily lunged tempo. His rhythm, for example, was a little too pointed for, say, Brahms or Schumann.” Gramophone’s reviewer Jonathan Swain contends that no conductor knew more than Monteux about expressive possibilities in the strings, claiming that “the conductor who doesn’t play a stringed instrument simply doesn’t know how to get the different sounds; and the bow has such importance in string playing that there are maybe 50 different ways of producing the same note”.

In his 2003 biography, John Canarina lists nineteen “significant world premieres” conducted by Monteux. In addition to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring is a further Stravinsky work, The Nightingale. Monteux’s other premieres for Diaghilev included Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Debussy’s Jeux. In the concert hall he premiered works by, among others, Milhaud, Poulenc and Prokofiev. In a letter of April 1914 Stravinsky wrote “everyone can appreciate your zeal and your probity in regard to the contemporary works of various tendencies that you have had occasion to defend.”

Kenneth Wilkinson

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

Among Wilkinson’s favourite recordings was Britten’s War Requiem. This was recorded in January 1963 at one of Wilkinson’s favourite venues, Kingsway Hall, with Culshaw as the producer. Among other recordings engineered by Wilkinson were Wagner’s Parsifal recorded live at Bayreuth in 1951, of which the critic Andrew Porter wrote, “…the most moving and profound of spiritual experiences … Decca have recorded, superbly, a superb performance”, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 1972 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Center.

Wilkinson retired from Decca when the company was taken over by the PolyGram group in 1980. He made no free-lance recordings. His work was released on Lyrita and Reader’s Digest records (as mentioned above) and RCA Records with recordings licensed through Decca. His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music”.