STRAVINSKY: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Sony 46915-2 (originally released on Columbia as MS-6010 in July 1958; one previous CD re-release).
This is, of course, not a new recording. It was taped over fifty-five years ago in a Brooklyn hotel ballroom often used for recordings by the New York Philharmonic. The new remastering gives a new perspective on the room sound, and validates the continued availability of this recording. It sounds like a new recording, even after that many years. And its freshness is still as arresting as it must have been when it was released a few months after the sessions. Accounts say Stravinsky himself was blown away by it when he heard it for the first time.
Leonard Bernstein was thirty-nine years old in January 1958, when this recording was made. He had just been announced as music director of the Philharmonic for the next season, having shared directorial duties with Dimitri Mitropoulos for a brief interval. This recording is the product of several microphones, viewed by producer Howard Scott (who died last fall, losing a battle with cancer at age 92) as a counteractive to an overly resonant hall. It is richly detailed, sparing nothing from scrutiny and evincing a fresh naturalness. Scott, who began his career with Columbia Records in his twenties, was part of the team that helped develop and introduce the long-playing record; as an old man, he came full circle in helping transfer analog tapes to the new digital format. One of his first jobs at Columbia was to transfer the material from the old 16-inch 33-1/3 r.p.m. lacquer discs (used in the days before magnetic tape became universal) to new long-playing master discs. Scott left Columbia in the early 1960s, working for other companies and in various arts administration jobs as well, only to return in the 1980s. He lived long enough to see the revival of his old friend, the LP record, by several audiophile companies.
The performance is exciting, thrillingly precise and captures the mood of Le Sacre as few others before or since have done. A booklet accompanying the disc enshrines some of the Philharmonic’s virtuosi of the time, and relays an account from Bert Bial, who played contrabassoon in this recording. The orchestra’s stellar timpanist Saul Goodman (hired by Toscanini and still in place when Pierre Boulez assumed direction in 1971) is one of the standouts—but, really, all of the players are standouts.
Bernstein made what is generally believed to be the first “quadraphonic” recording of Le Sacre with the London Symphony in the 1970s (again for Columbia) and recorded the work yet again with the Israel Philharmonic some time later, for Deutsche Grammophon. Bernstein’s first recording is special for a number of reasons: first of all, its clarity and sheer excitement; then, the excitement building in the Philharmonic in those days over Bernstein’s appointment as sole music director, the first professional conductor born and trained in the United States to gain such a pinnacle position; and the special nature of the players themselves, each one a great artist in his or her own right.
GODFREY WINHAM (1934-75): The Habit of Perfection, setting of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins for soprano and string quartet (1956). Tony Arnold, soprano; with Brian Fulmer and Kyle Armbrust, violins; Cyrus Breoukhim, viola and Christopher Gross, cello. To Prove My Love: Three Shakespeare Sonnets (1957-60). Arnold, soprano; with Alan Feinberg, piano. Variations on a Theme by James Pierpont (The Jingle Bell Variations) (1970-74). Feinberg, piano. HP: Two short pieces for computer-synthesized sound (1970-73). Albany 1408.
Not much can be found about the life of British-born composer Godfrey Winham, who only lived to be forty. He was born 11 December 1934 in London, studying at the Westminster School and the Royal Academy—at the latter, his major areas were composition and piano. He also had some private coaching with Matyas Seiber. At the Westminster School, when he was about fourteen, he started to compose and, in his later teens, wrote music criticism. He also had violin lessons during those early years with Hans Keller, who was also a critic and, later, a BBC program administrator.
Winham met Milton Babbitt in Salzburg in 1954. Babbitt urged him to come to Princeton, where he was developing an electronic music program, and study with Roger Sessions. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Princeton; in the early 1960s, he began to work with Babbitt at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centor. His doctoral dissertation was called Composition with Arrays, in which he devised and introduced an alternative method to the 12-tone system. He was the first person to receive a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton. He died at Belle Mead, New Jersey, on April 26, 1975. At the time of his death he was married to the soprano Bethany Beardslee, now in her late eighties, who in her prime was highly praised by Babbitt as someone who could assimilate music that no other vocalist could. Beardslee unabashedly flaunted her disdain for any aspirations to popularity: “I don’t think in terms of the public”, she declared. “Music is for the musicians. If the public wants to come along and study it, fine. I don’t go and try to tell a scientist his business because I don’t know anything about it. Music is just the same way. Music is not entertainment.” This is a little more overt than the attitude of Stravinsky in his last years, who was determined to write in whatever direction his creative fancy might take him—and he was quite forthright about saying that he didn’t care about what the public thought of it, but Stravinsky’s essentially warm-hearted and quintessentially Russian nature stopped him from being dismissive. “Very different from what the people want” was one way in which he summed up late works like the “Huxley” Variations or Requiem Canticles. Beardslee had been married before: to the French conductor Jacques-Louis Monod, who introduced her to the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. She and Winham were married in 1956 and had two children. She was about nine years his senior.
Winham may have had Beardslee in mind for the very arresting but definitely not tonal The Habit of Perfection, a setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for soprano and string quartet. It was finished in 1956 and tends to exploit the extreme ends of the soprano’s range. Soprano Tony Arnold is an able exponent of this strangely expressive music, which of course is not music for everybody. The cycle of three Shakespeare sonnets, To Prove My Love, from about the same time, is similarly crafted but might be called slightly more accessible: there are flirtations with tonality within a mostly atonal fabric, and not merely passing flirtations.
The piano variations, written between 1970 and 1974, are quite another matter. Very few people recognize the name of James Pierpont, a 19th-century songwriter, but everybody knows the tune—Jingle Bells. This piece, lasting just under half an hour, is very tonal and very much a piece “in terms of the public”. There are many Brahmsian moments in this work. The tune is altered the point of unrecognizability — but never atonally! Pianist Alan Feinberg, always a master of the challenging, the not easily understood and the less traversed areas of music for his instrument, makes a compelling case for this work. It might also be mentioned that Winham, at the time of his death, was working on a tonal Sonata for Orchestra which remains unfinished.
Finally, there are—from the very same period as the Pierpont Variations—slightly less than three minutes of computer compositions by Winham.