HERBERT VON KARAJAN has built up a huge discography in the last 30 years, recording the Complete Works of Everbody, it would seem several times over. Rare is the orchestral staple Karajan has not duplicated on records, and rarer still the title he hasn't go round to at all. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring did not receive his attention in the form of a recording until 1964, when Deutsche Grammophon brought out his coolish performance with his Berlin Philharmonic (138.920), now his remake has arrived, with a good deal of ballyhoo from DG (2530.884), and it more than justifies itself as a replacement for the earlier version.
It may be that The Rite of Spring , like Scheherazade , was one of those things Karajan was persuaded to do by the record company's marketing people in the mid-60s. He had never recorded anything by either Stravinsky or Rimsky-Korsakov before, and neither work at that time brought forth any especially illuminating response from him. Both received the sort of precision-drilled performances - impeccable, perhaps even "perfect," but dispiritingly bloodless - that seemed to characterize so much of his work at that time. The new Rite is an altogether different story, a vital and involved realization that seems similarly representative of this great conductor's music-making in the present decade. The orchestra, now stunningly recorded in its own hall, is ever bit the phenomenal machine it was in 1964, but its resources now are directed toward bringing the familiar music to full and glowing life, generating the excitment of fresh discovery.
Karajan does not rely on sheer visceral impact, as Solti largely does in his quite different approach with his formidable Chicagoans (London CS-6885), nor does he offer the sort of X-ray Boulez gave us in his brilliant Cleveland remake (Columbia MS-7293), but with incredible subtlety and refinement (as well as the most awesome power, which gives the impression of still more held in reserve) he really probes the mysteries and terrors implicit in these "pictures of pagan Russia." Whereas his earlier Rite was cool, this one is chilling - but there is warmth aplenty in the communicativeness that draws the listener in almost as a participant. Definitely for the very top of the list.
The Rite of Spring in a sense might be said to be an outgrowth of the deep and productive interest in "pagan Russia" on the part of Stravinsky's teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, as The Firebird might be said to represent an extension of Rimsky's fascination with Russian fairy tales.
Some of Rimsky's own lesser-known music in these veins has appeared recently. On a Turnabout disc (QTV 34689, encoded for "QS" four-channel playback) Richard Kapp conducts the Philharmonia Hingarica in suites from the operas Mlada and The Invisible City of Kitezh (a very late work, anticipating the technique perfected in Coq d'or ) and the overture to May Night . All three of these operas reflect Rimsky's absorption with the supernatural element in Russian folklore, and much of the materials is downright enchanting.
The Kitezh suite has not been around since the retirement of Vaclav Smetacek's recording on the now defunct Parliament label; the new version is smoother in both performance and sound. The only part of the Mlada suite recorded hereto-fore is the famous Procession of the Nobles; the little prelude and three national dances are quite attractive.The May Night overture, of course, is available elsewhere, but it is an agreeable makeweight in this intriguing package, and he Turnabout price is a further enticement.