STRAVINSKY:  Le Sacre du printemps.  Petroushka (1947 version).  Fireworks.
Chicago (Sacre, Fireworks) and Boston (Petroushka) Symphony Orchestras/ Seiji Ozawa, cond.

BMG  63311 (M) (ADD) TT: 69:27 

By the end of the 1960s, less than 10 years after he'd won the Charles Munch competition at Besancon, Seiji Ozawa was the hottest young conductor in the world. Bernstein and Karajan became his mentors (sadly, the latter's influence was dominant by the early 1980s, and the result has been to weep over). In 1963 he was appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony after 1936. For the next five years he sustained morale and preserved the performance standard of Fritz Reiner (1953-62), while downtown Jean Martinon's tenure (1963-68) went from ecstasy to agony within the first season, and became increasingly embattled—but that's a story for another time and place. Concurrently, Ozawa was music director in Toronto, switching to San Francisco in 1970 for six euphoric seasons onstage and off. In 1970 he also became music director of the Tanglewood Festival, and in 1973 music director of the Boston Symphony—a post he will relinquish in 2002, to the relief of many players in the orchestra and not a few subscribers.

There were personal reasons for Ozawa going soft at the center that border on tragic; he was not, however, a Klemperer who suffered yet surmounted even worse private travail, nor even a Karajan, whose old age was a medical horror, complicated by the erosion of his three-decade dominance world-wide. However, until Ozawa became mealy he was a charismatic conductor and a brilliant interpreter of 20th-century music in particular. Stravinsky was a specialty early on, as these performances testify. The only unsubtle one is the brief Fireworks of 1908, despite the staggering virtuosity of Chicago's orchestra, equaled stateside at the time only by Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphians. This glitters, but doesn't sound as digested as the two ballet scores.

To protect the copyright, but also to trim his lavish 1911 instrumentation down to manageable size for performances by average-size orchestras, Stravinsky revised Petroushka in 1947. This reflected his allegiance to Neo-Classicism (which he claimed to have created after Sacre) until the ballet Agon 40 years later, and the subsequent embrace of Anton Webern's distillate of serialism. The piano part, for example, mainly for the second of the original Petroushka's four scenes, was greatly expanded in 1947. Of  late, where orchestral budgets can afford extra players, we've heard a return to the 1911 original, altogether more colorful and in its way more subtle. Ideally one would have a copy of both, and I don't know a better version of 1947 than this one. The Boston Symphony played with a discipline Erich Leinsdorf restored after Charles Munch's dionysian reign. It has the bonuses of a November 1969 Symphony Hall recording without the usual reverberating hangover (credit the original producer Peter Dellheim and his engineer, Bernard Keville), and Michael Tilson Thomas as pianist, when he was the BSO's associate conductor.

The prize, though, is the blistering Chicago Sacre recorded downtown on July 1, 1968—Ozawa's final summer as music director at Ravinia. Although Orchestra Hall had been "renovated" in 1965 with appalling consequences acoustically, there'd been adjustments by 1968, and RCA knew where to place the orchestra for maximum effect without resorting to phony reverb. The sound, in BMG's 24 bit-rate/96 sampling-rate, leaps out at one—as if we shared the podium with Ozawa. It is the most persuasive, viscerally exciting demonstration of 24/96 remastering I've heard so far on any label.  As for the interpretation, there are Sacres and there are Sacres (Stravinsky by the way favored "The Coronation of Spring" as an English translation of his full title), and several are staggeringly fine. But Ozawa's kinetic reading of 1968 holds its own, and the orchestra's breathtaking translation into sound nudges any super-digi-fi disc you care to name. As I listen, it tops the Oue/Minnesota Sacre on Reference Recordings, which I bought a few years ago at full price out of curiosity.

When persons speak of the Good Old Days, mine—in the wake of Reiner's semi-retirement and death—include the Ozawa summers at Ravinia, where he returned as a guest through 1971. And Sacre is surely the prize disc of that regime. In closing, BMG has all but obliterated RCA from its "High Performance" insert brochure; the only mention is "digitally remastered in BMG/RCA Studios, New York City."  Does anyone else remember the Anschluss of 1938?

(Anent the spelling Petroushka—rather than Petrouchka—in the headnote and review, it was Stravinsky's own phonetic English spelling in those several books co-Crafted (by Robert, that is) in the late '50s.  Petrouchka, still to be found in publicity releases, program books and CD literature, is the phonetic French spelling of Stravinsky's original Cryllic.  The British have gone further yet.  Gramophone spells it Petrushka, which is really too far.  There's no "uh" in Petroushka, but neither is there an "ouch."  It's allowable to think of the title as "Petrooshka," but how that would look?  No, Stravinsky the painstaking multi-linguist, knew best— even though my insistence on Petroushka led to a recent divorce from the Seattle Symphony, where the p-r tail now wags the artistic dog, at least in matters of "promotion" and program book—the one place where it is possible to get things right, if anyone gives a damn. A few of us—who fell in love with semantics before there were computers with, God forbid, spell-checks—still do.  We are, however, plainly a dying breed, destined to join the dodo and various sauri on the extinct list.)

R.D. (Aug. 2000)