1992 – Stravinsky
As I had mentioned in my last blog entries in the series, 1992 was a great year for recording for Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. In January, we recorded two Dvorak symphonies; in May we recorded the Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky Rococco Variations as well as the Sibelius Second Symphony and three short works, and now it was time to record two of Igor Stravinsky’s greatest masterpieces, the ballets Les Sacre du Printemps and Petrouchka.
These sessions took place in November of 1992, just after a quick tour to the United Kingdom. The tour encompassed two concerts at the Barbican in London as part of a Festival of Scandinavian Artists. One of the concerts was attended by the Queen and Prince Phillip. We did I, believe, two other concerts – one was in Glasgow, and the other I believe was in Birmingham. Le Sacre was taken on tour and played on three of these concerts – Rachmaninov Two was on the concert that the Queen attended.This was a good way for us to reacquaint ourselves with Le Sacre which is for the timpanist (indeed for any true musician) one of the “mountains” of the orchestral repertoire. Stravinsky’s earlier ballet, Petrouchka is also one of the great orchestral ballets, although not quite as difficult as Le Sacre.This is not to belittle Petrouchka. It has challenges enough, but Le Sacre – ah….there is the rub! Le Sacre du Printemps – The Rite of Spring in English was premiered in 1913, and was a disaster at its first performance. (There is an excellent BBC documentary entitled “Riot at the Rite”, which while a bit over the top in some ways, describes what went on at the premiere as well as preparations for the event. Musicians as well as dancers had never before experienced a work in which rhythm displaced melody as the primary musical element, and there was much heartache going into the rehearsals.
Needless to say, the ballet eventually caught on (although if I am correct, it was in orchestral performances that the work found stature, and nowadays, the ballet (in both versions) is a classic. Somebody once had the nerve to call it a “pop tune”, which I find to be more than a little disrespectful, although if you count the number of performances it has had over the years, maybe there is some point in the remark.
My first encounter with Le Sacre came in 1987, when the OPO played the work under the direction of Esa-Peka Salonen, then our principal guest conductor. I admit that my stomach was full of butterflies that week, but I came out of it alive, intact and with no scars, and (as a fellow musician once put it) “having taken no prisoners!” It is that kind of piece.
The work is divided into two parts – Part One: The Adoration Of The Earth and Part Two: The Sacrifice. It is scored for a large orchestra including eight horns, two Wagner tubas, two tubas, two timpanists and a large percussion section, although no harps.
I played Le Sacre du Printemps again in 1988 under Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, and again in the spring of 1992 under Mariss Jansons, both in Oslo and on our Germany/ Austria tour. (As a matter of fact, as I write this blog, I am listening to our Vienna performance of Le Sacre.) As to Petrouchka, we had performed it several times with Mariss, who preferred the 1947 rewrite. (Author’s Note: It is a bit sad, as I played the 1911 version and prefer it as I feel it has more character, if that is possible. Not the 1947 is bad by any means.) After discussions with EMI, it was decided that the latter part of November (just after our tour to the U.K.) would be used to record both works.
If memory serves me well, Le Sacre was first up for recording. Two sets of timpani were used. I used the Light Metropolitan Bs (as I had done on tours in the spring to the U.K.) and my assistant used the Hingers (which also had plastic heads on them for tour purposes. I divided the parts up – giving everything that had the high b to my assistant as I wanted to leave the piccolo drum in one place. This also gave him something to do in Part One, which was fine with me. I figured I had enough to handle, especially in Part Two.In addition to using the Light drums, I was using Cloyd Duff mallets for these recordings. These were then distributed by the now defunct American Drum Manufacturing Company.They were quite good, and I particularly liked the hard mallets (the reds) which I used for the Dance Sacrale.
As it turned out, the recording session for Le Sacre went quite well. All of the most famous parts went off without a hitch. I was particularly proud of Part Two, especially from Rehearsal 104 to the end. I confess, my favorite part is and will remain from that rehearsal number until the very end, particularly the “Danse Sacrale”. It is that section that is the timpanist’s test. Cloyd Duff once told me that “while Le Sacre is played often, it never gets any easier.” Truer words were never spoken.
I only changed one thing for the recording. In concert and on tour, I played the last part of the piece on the two middle timpani -the A on the 29 inch, and the c on the 26 inch. For the recording, I put them on the two larger timpani – the A on the 32 inch and the C on the 29 inch. I’m glad I did, as there was more clarity -more tautness to the sound.
Petrouchka was next up, and the sessions proceeded with even more dispatch than those for Le Sacre, if that’s possible. I used the Lights and Duff sticks for Petrouchka as well.
Both works were successfully recorded and all of us looked forward to the release, which occurred the following year. While I was happy that everything was accurate, I felt that I was a bit to close-miked, particularly in Petrouchka. Le Sacre came off better, with clarity in the percussion.
In retrospect, I learned much from these sessions about recordings and the music of Stravinsky. If I had to go back in time and redo the experience, I would have used the Hinger drums for Petrouchka, as they were a bit weightier and I would have opted for my Feldmans for mallet use for the same reason. I also would speak up a bit more to the engineers regarding being so close-miked. This dries up the sound just a little too much for my liking.
However, it is was it is, and it was a successful recording, and I still get a kick out of hearing it now and again. I am just grateful that I had the opportunity, and it was a good ending to a banner year of recording for the Oslo Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons, and myself. In fact, it was the last such year, as we recorded only one recording per year during 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996. More on that later.
Here is the “Danse Sacrale!! Enjoy!