Album review: Sonic update for the LA Phil and Salonen Sacre of the century

Every once in a while, an album of special magnificence appears on the market; all the parameters aligned, both in terms of performance and sound engineering. One such occasion took place some fifteen years ago, as Deutsche Grammophon released their first-ever album with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Recorded in conjunction with live performances on 14-18 January 2006, the original SACD recordings were the first to emerge from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, inaugurated two and a half years earlier. For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the recording also marked their return to the DG roster, after fifteen-or-so years with Sony Classical.

Three riveting scores by Modest Mussorgsky, Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky were featured the state-of-the art album, resulting in a sonic calling-card par excellence for the orchestra, the conductor and the hall alike.

Now, some fifteen years later, DG team has upgraded the sonics of the original recording for a Blu-ray audio release, featuring both surround and stereo presentations in 24 bit / 96 kHz as well as a Dolby Atmos mix, alongside a conventional CD album. Even with the very high quality of the 2006 original in mind, the re-release stands out in its enhanced spatial focus and pin-point detail.

In its top-tier home audio presentation, one can but marvel the astonishing performances, which appear as earthmoving today as they did fifteen years ago.

Salonen and the orchestra open the disc with an aptly demonic take on Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain (Иванова ночь на лысой горе) in its original 1867 guise. Unperformed during the composer’s lifetime, Mussorgsky produced several manuscript versions of the score for various purposes, ranging from a standalone orchestral item to an operatic tableau featuring solo voices and chorus.

For great many years, A Night on the Bare Mountain was performed in a tamed-down adaptation by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, enthusiastically received upon its 1886 premiere. Further reworked by Leopold Stokowski for Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, the score was etched to the collective memory in a sounding guise far removed from the composer’s original.

Although Mussorgsky’s initial version was finally published in conjunction with its centenary in the late sixties, it has remained a curiosity, somewhat, with only a dozen entries found in the discography to the day. Among those, the performance by Salonen and the LA Phil is in a league of its own.

Frenetic strings open the score, followed by timpani, summoning the whole orchestra into a wild dance. A sombre, fanfare-like main figure is stated ominously by low brass, ornamented by trumpets. Ferocious and gorgeously layered, the LA Phil burst into action with enthralling force under Salonen, keeping the listener on the edge of the seat from the very first bar onwards.

A ritual of sound and rhythm ensues, as Mussorgsky evokes the witches’ sabbath in astonishingly daring orchestral setting, shrouded in riveting colours. With Salonen on the helm, there is amazing continuity in the music, despite its tumultuously fragmented conception. Clad in enhanced Blu-ray audio sonics, the terrific LA Phil performance is ever so beautifully served by the translucent ambience of the remastered recording.

There is no dawn in Mussorgsky’s original. Instead, the St John’s Night ritual pervades the entire score from beginning to end, resulting in an intensely phantasmagorical orchestral tabelau, befittingly setting the mood for the entire album.

Banned on moral grounds after its Cologne premiere, Béla Bartók’s one-act pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin)(1918-19/1924/1927) is one of the key pieces of the first half of the twentieth century. Tremendously expressive and brilliantly orchestrated, Bartók’s score follows no discernible system. Instead of pre-meditated schemes, the composer was guided by his ear during the process of composing his surreal ritual, where the urban and the age-old merge into a spellbinding tale of seduction, violence and downright horror.

Due to the upheavals surrounding its staged productions, Bartók subsequently reworked the score for concert use. Although labelled as suite, the concert version is, in fact, more or less straightforward presentation of the original, with the last third of the ballet score cut. The composer’s solution was probably motivated by pragmatism; by omitting the original ending, Bartók could both condense his thirty minute score and also dispense with the brief appearance of a choir, thus making the music more appealing to program.

While the concert suite is more widely represented on recordings, the original ballet version has gained many advocates among conductors over the past fifty years. Pierre Boulez, who first recorded the complete score in the early seventies, even called the concert version ”blasphemy”.

Following the concert version recorded here, Salonen himself chose the ballet version for his second album take on the piece with the Philharmonia Orchestra ten years later. The concert suite, in its turn, reappeared on a subsequent live recording with Salonen conducting Wiener Philharmoniker, released in the orchestra’s Special Annual Edition series in 2019.

Personal preferences aside, both versions have their benefits. While the original dramaturgy is preserved intact by the ballet version, alongside some of the most audacious musical passages in the entire score, in its concert guise, The Miraculous Mandarin comes off in more coherent way, perhaps better suited for a standalone presentation of the music.

In the end, the two versions provide the listener with very different presentations of the same music, resulting in fundamentally different aural journeys. When properly done, either version can yield to a thoroughly gripping experience.

Rejoining the sheer feast Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are having with the concert version on their DG recording, one is simply sold to the roaring performance. As with the Mussorgsky, the album presentation provides the listener with an ideal balance between heated musical dramaturgy and clear-cut orchestral textures.

Bartók’s score opens with a whirlwind of a portrait of the urban jungle, with the street-sounds of a rush-hour metropolis wafting in the air, as the full orchestra is joined in a formidable sonic portrait of a modern cityscape. Marvellously paced by Salonen, the opening passage unravels in an enthralling manner, as the musicians of the LA Phil endorse Bartók’s ravishing textures.

However, the music does not linger on the main street. Instead, the orchestra sneaks into a dimly-lit alley, where the action proper takes place. Abused by three tramps, a girl is forced to lure passing men into a doorway to be robbed. The first decoy game turns into comedy, as an old rake is seduced by the dancing girl. On the second round, a young man joins her dance. As neither of the two has any money, they both get thrown out by the tramps.

Bartók’s splendid score depicts the action in quasi-cinematic manner, combing comedy, romance and action into a vivid array of instrumental virtuosity. Altering between gorgeous solo passages and terrific tutti sections, the LA Phil conveys the music with captivating energy under Salonen, alluring the listener into the very core of the drama with their invigorating performance.

The plot thickens in the third decoy game, where a mysterious Mandarin becomes obsessed by the girl’s dance. Unyielding in his passion, the Mandarin is seemingly unaffected by the mugging tramps. They panic and try to stab him to death, but to no avail. Eventually, the tramps hang him on a lamp hook.

This is where the concert version cuts off, closing with a wild dance, followed by a series of tutti chords. Even with the Mandarin’s miraculous reawakening and initial fulfilment omitted, the performance leaves the listener in a state of awe, as the orchestra and Salonen give Bartók’s score one helluva outing, both tactile and ethereal.

Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic onstage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in October 2019. © Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt / Mathew Imaging

However, the best is yet to come, for the disc closes with a milestone performance of the ultimate twentieth century masterpiece, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13/1947). A core item in Salonen’s repertoire, by January 2006, the orchestra and its Music Director had already programmed Sacre on three occasions in their new home, including the inauguration of the Disney Hall, as well as two season finales.

The outstanding performance documented by DG can be seen as a groundbreaking meeting point of two traditions. Salonen and the LA Phil succeed in maintaining a quasi-Boulezian focus on sonic architecture and instrumental detail, while rendering a performance of invigorating earthiness, in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 classic Columbia recording. Yet Salonen’s vision exceeds way beyond these simplified allusions, resulting in a truly unique take, deeply rooted in the musical text of Stravinsky’s game-changing ballet score.

Cast in two fifteen-minute tableaux of pictures from pagan Russia, Le Sacre du printemps opens with a famous bassoon solo, soaring in its highest registers, echoed by other woodwind instruments. In the course of the introduction, the music builds up to a multi-layered instrumental chorus, evoking a sonic image of a swarm of traditional Russian spring pipes.

The opening section is marvellously conceived by the orchestra and Salonen. Like a conjurer, the solo bassoon sets the hall alight with sonic mystery, leading the orchestra into the ritual of renewal. The introduction is unveiled in spontaneous, quasi-improvisatory manner, ever carefully balanced and aptly paced.

An orchestral tour-de-force ensues, as the shifting accents herald the Augurs of Spring. Captivatingly narrated by Salonen and the LA Phil, the music segues into a series of ritual dances, displaying the full sonic potential of Stravinsky’s dazzling orchestral scoring. The tension mounts formidably towards those magical twenty seconds of The Sage; a simple three-bar rhythmic figure followed by a chord of otherworldly chill. After a brief halt, the orchestra erupts into the wild ecstasy of the Dance of the Earth.

A series of layered ostinato figures set the second tableau in motion. A case in point of orchestral finesse, the introduction is astoundingly conceived by Salonen and the LA Phil players. The plot thickens, as the orchestra enters into The Glorification of the Chosen One. Summoned by the young girls’ dances, theAncestors appear, accompanied by a primordial chorus, or, in Bernstein’s words, a Duke Ellington lick.

Build with perfection by the orchestra under Salonen, Stravinsky’s musical sequence culminates in the shattering Sacrificial Dance, a sonic machine circling around itself, eventually leading to exalted self-annihilation.

Erupting with sonic energy, the orchestra plunges into a maze of rhythms and measures, resulting in an enthralling tapestry of surreal sounding images. Ending with a sudden scalar figure, followed by a final tutti bang, Stravinsky’s musical revolution is brought to its tremendous close.

A performance of a lifetime, this is THE Sacre of the twenty-first century. In the course of the powerhouse outing, everything just clicks, resulting in an absolutely unforgettable experience; a solid vision perfectly executed.

Naturally, in the course of those fifteen years since the performance recorded here, both the conductor and the orchestra have since developed their visions towards new vistas. With the Philharmonia, Salonen has reworked Stravinsky’s score into an interactive multimedia installation, Re-Rite, whereas the LA Phil has continued to delve ever deeper into the Russian soil in their performances of Sacre with Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.

Reborn in high-definition sonics, the 2006 DG recording remains as a milestone outing in the multi-faceted discography of Sacre. A splendid beast, the performance by Salonen and the LA Phil will undoubtably carry way into the twenty second century.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Modest Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867)

Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19, Sz. 73 (1918-19/1924/1927)

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13/1947) – Pictures of pagan Russia in two parts

Recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 14-18 January 2006

Deutsche Grammophon 4839953 (2021), 1 CD & Pure Audio Blu-ray

© Jari Kallio

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