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Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps [*]
Claude Debussy: La Mer, L 109 [**]

New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
Live recording: David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City (September 23-23 and 25, 2018 [*] and October 4-6, 2018 [**]) – 56’20
Decca Gold B0029690-02 – Booklet in English

Jaap van Zweden continues on a path of remarkable exercise after last year’s release of the incisive musical parlance of Beethoven’s Symphony n° 5 and n° 7. For consideration, we now have a splashy album, double-billed by a divergent Stravinsky along with light intersections of Debussy confluences.

It’s not hard to see why orchestra members would gravitate toward Le Sacre du printemps since endless pulsations of instrumental prevalence occur at some time or another. Time has allowed the public to assimilate the merits of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 work written for ballet, and in this depiction by the New York Philharmonic (NYP), the listener will leave with a vigorous souvenir.

Ushering in systematic nudges of unconventionality begin with the amiably distant and unusually high bassoon register. This preamble, however, quickly paves way to a wild avenue of obliqueness. Stravinsky’s project, based on pagan myth, reveals Jaap van Zweden’s reading as briskly tenacious. It’s apropos. The aggressive “thinking” is quickly confirmed upon heading into the second scène, “Augures printainiers” (“Augurs of Spring”), with marching determination. NYP sets up the equation nicely as their theatrical dynamo stamps away with a highly proactive stance. Raw and teeming with primitive perspectives, Jan van Zweden has read all the bulletins and makes a justified case of flooding the stage with severity and agnostic antagonism.

While van Zweden’s gnawing, nail-biting Stravinsky dialogues within Le Sacre de printemps have more angular and bold-stated insistences, the opposite can be said about La Mer’s aqueous expressions. For this reviewer, the greater impression yields to Claude Debussy’s Trois esquisses symphoniques. Here, we find a more luxuriant introspection of the Frenchman’s famed water work. Because the tempo is restrained a grade or two, it allows better instrumental articulation. Such conclusion can be heard during “De l’aube à midi sur la mer’s” ("From Dawn till Noon on the Sea's") middle cello entrée (4’ 42) and brass narrations. Later, we perceive Debussy’s oceanic fondness in a conclusive build, beginning with annunciatory horns (8’ 11) that are keenly underpinned by Nancy Allen’s crisp harp acuity. Jaap van Zweden pays close attention to crescendo throttles and pull backs as the movement concludes: it builds upon the Debussy rêve.

Strikingly imaginative in detail, the “Jeux de vagues” (“The Play of the Waves”) is poised to be the best movement of the three. The harp takes top honors, especially with angelic glissandos running endlessly into the sky while the glockenspiel shimmers about in unfettered lightness. This isn’t to be outdone by woodwinds as they add to the scherzo-driven fancies and add to an incredibly saturated picture. Jaap van Zweden drives at the force of “layering”, constantly on-the-alert to the idées of musical aggression along with musical retrenchment…a superb extraction.

Yet the final movement doesn’t dwell as strongly upon Debussy’s intended “mirror on nature’s reality.” While basses moodily ruminate through the opening bars of “Le vent fait danser la mer” (“The Wind Makes the Sea Dance”), maestro van Zweden later opens his arms to long legato runs that are interspersed by stashes of horn and bassoon. Violins have a breathless cadence as the piece turns its last page.

When all is said and done, look back at critic Pierre Lalo who found La Mer a “reproduction of nature” instead of a desire for it to “stand in front of nature.” M. Lalo is likely wrong…nature can’t be replicated, nor can musical transcription replicate nature. But with NYP’s characterization front and center, the idea of duplication comes comfortably close to allaying any conceivable oscillation. In closing, La Mer will leave the listener tingling from head to toe. Transcendent.

Christie Grimstad




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