RECORDS / Going short on the stiff vodkas

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STRAVINSKY: Petrushka. The Rite of Spring Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez

(DG 435 769-2)

THE MASTER of immaculate conception back on old stamping ground - but I am wondering where he left the spirit of these great scores. Not in Cleveland. Alarm bells started ringing for me with the opening pages of Petrushka: fastidious is the word, every line acutely well heard, meticulously set down, but no enjoyment, no relish of the rhythmic hustle and bustle, no fun at this Shrovetide Fair.

Of course the ear is repeatedly titillated with this detail or that, and in a calculating sort of way there is a certain enchantment and mystique, a cool, lucid beauty about the shadowy puppet world backstage. But, back among the fairground crowds, the performing bears, the nursemaids and coachmen, whatever happened to ebullience and folkloric charm, to rhythms that dance? With The Rite of Spring, of course, it is rhythms that galvanise and possess. But here, too, Boulez has lost his sense of theatre: drama is sacrificed to text, abandonment to precision.

The opening germinates most beguilingly, but is there even a whiff of tensile expectancy? No. Flabby timpani do little for the explosive release of Jeu du rapt (driven, like so much here, with the handbrake on), and is anything other than a cultivated string sound conveyed in the heaving bass lines of Rondes printanieres? No again. Fatally undercharacterised, then, and before anyone reminds me how much more I am hearing under Boulez, let me ask whether or not the bass clarinet was actually playing that crucial solo leading the long, inexorable build-up of Danse de la terre or, for that matter, how eight horns performing spectacular acrobatics can be virtually inaudible in the very same dance?

Mackerras on EMI Eminence is not only more revealing, but his performance knows the smell of risk and danger. And there is the composer himself on Sony: what, I wonder, would he have said about the Boulez? ES

THE FEW critical reactions that have already appeared suggest that nothing has changed. Along with admiration for clarity and fine attention to detail, go warning epithets like 'chilly' or 'uninvolving'. That was not my feeling - at least, not after Petrushka. Maybe the Shrovetide Fair events needed an extra shot or two of vodka, but the puppet's piano-led soliloquies, his final showdown with the Blackamoor and the death scene are fantastically beautiful (and ideally recorded).

The Rite too has moments where exquisite sound and finely etched articulation made me hold my breath. A less Straussian view is difficult to imagine - not a problem for this listener, but a primitive celebration of the violent Russian Spring? Not in Boulez's Rite. One may find hints of sadism in the way Stravinsky's more delicate acerbities are enjoyed, but little sense of crude, communal cruelty in Glorification de l'elue, nor in the somewhat deliberate Danse sacrale. And the gear- changes in the earlier stages of Part Two are too sudden - the pulse quickens too jerkily.

And yet in spite of all these doubts, I am glad I heard this. Boulez's Rite may prove a valuable corrective to still-prevalent Disney-esque tendencies, while in his Petrushka the gains more than outweigh the losses - yes, sense of collective merriment is weak, but the weird privacy of the puppet scenes is drawing me back. SJ

SCHUBERT: Octet. Minuet and Finale for Wind Octet: Vienna Wind Soloists (Decca 430 516-2)

PERHAPS I have been listening to rather too many period groups recently, but I took a while to adjust to the plump, contented, sedentary style of this playing. The ripeness of the bassoon and horn soloists only adds to that initial impression (just listen to the latter in his moment of extravagant reflection at the close of the first movement), and even Peter Schmidl's poetic clarinet is wont to glide over the rhythm of his heavenly slow movement melody.

Yet, beyond the big symphonic first movement, amply filled but rather stiffly articulated here, I began to relax into Schubert's inspiring adventure - and so, it seems, did these players. The Andante and variations is beautifully done, great delight taken in the lovely violin filigree of the horn-led third variation, the cello-led fourth, and the fireside intimacy of the sixth. Suddenly the performance sounded undemonstrably Viennese with nothing to prove and everything to enjoy. Like me, though, you may prefer a little more piquancy in the sauce. ES

NOT A hair out of place. Disciplined, attentive, shapely and colourful playing gives the Vienna team's performance of the Schubert Octet a demonstration quality: this is how it should be done, one thinks - at first; but then, as one begins to look for more. . . No, this - rather than Boulez's Stravinsky - is the kind of playing I find 'uninvolving'.

Following it with the score nothing seems exceptionable, in fact the eye is often struck by how well a detail is negotiated. What I miss is any sense of the joy of communal music-making - any hint that preplanned interpretation has faltered in the face of a moment's genuine inspiration.

Emotionally too it is all rather two-dimensional: no ache of longing in the Adagio's clarinet tune, no violent contrast in the finale's surprising dark-light confrontations, and surprisingly little of that untranslatable Austrian concept Gemutlichkeit (my dictionary suggests a rather feeble 'geniality'). The two wind octet pieces, written when Schubert was in his mid teens, are good enough, but they are hardly what this disc is about. SJ