And that is exactly the kind of subjective question which sits before us today, begging for some type of an answer:
Yes, Bernstein '58 is fantastic -- I own it, along with 20+ other recordings of this masterpiece -- often referred to as the greatest composition of the 20th century (I won't argue too strenuously otherwise)...
His description of the Bernstein recording:
It was during my senior year of high school, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, and a brand new recording had just come out:
Some great moments:
The famous "Dance of Youths and Maidens" is so powerful.
and the amount of sheer volume Boulez achieves here while maintaining distinctive groups of motifs, all perfectly mixed by Columbia's engineers. Notice the screeching piccolo trumpet, circled in blue! This leads directly to the "Dance of Abduction."
"Spring Rounds" -- a tranquil interruption. A quarter-note pulse, offset by an identical pulse which follows the first by a half beat. Check out the massive sound here -- circled are two tubas, timpani, bass drum and tam-tam. I have yet to hear anyone shake the earth the way Boulez does here with such sonics!
"Games of the Rival Towns" -- check out this little melody, motif or cell:
in a massive build-up of sound ... note the motif is now in the strings, clarinets, oboes and flutes. Also notice the bass drum part (circled) which begins to pound out beats in 3/4 against the rest of the orchestra's 4/4! (Also notice the two Wagner tubas [right above the bass drum part]).
Right before "Dance to the Earth" this is what the score looks like:
Boulez gets an amazing, surging sound here -- and the thunderous, soul-shaking tam-tam crescendi (circled) are incredible:
This lovely muted trumpets duet is always a highlight of any Le Sacre performance. Here they are perfect. Subsequent to this exposed section, Stravinsky re-orchestrates the motif with an accompanying beautiful lightly bouncing string part.
The ballet continues to alternate between frenetic rip-roaring passages ("Dance to the Glorified One") and calmer ones ("Evocation of Ancestors" and "Ritual Performance of the Ancestors.")
The latter features a gorgeous English Horn lick which is supplemented by a bass trumpet. The Alto Flute is also featured here. Incidentally, all these unusual instruments are played with the highest level of competence by the Cleveland players.
Here's a page of the score that encompasses only one bar of music:
D - E - A - D
Coincidence? Probably not!
I've given a few hints about why this piece is so ground-breaking and revolutionary. I feel it best to conclude with a few words from my hero, Maestro Boulez:
" ...Le Sacre du printemps serves as a point of reference to all who seek to establish the birth certificate of what is still called 'contemporary' music ... in algebra, the term 'simplification' is applied when the terms of an equation are reduced to a more direct expression. In this sense, Le Sacre may be spoken of as a basic: It reduces the terms of a complex language and allows a new start....Unquestionably, the music of Western Europe already contained the seeds of rhythmic preoccupation, especially at the outset; but in the quest for solutions in the areas of polyphony, melody and form, the role of rhythm had gradually been reduced to that of a necessary substratum, sometimes refined, based on a certain number of archetypes, or 'models.' Nevertheless, rhythm followed the general evolution of musical writing in the direction of subtlety, flexibility and complexity. But with Stravinsky, the preeminence of rhythm is shown by the reduction of polyphony and harmony to subordinate functions" (booklet to CD).
In other words, go back and look at some of the "melodies" or better yet "motifs" which make up Le Sacre. There is nothing to them, melodically or harmonically. The entire "Dance of the Young Girls" is made up of one chord, repeated over and over again, with displaced accents.
Ultimately, Le Sacre is what it is -- one of the most exciting and revolutionary works of the past century -- but early on in that century -- 1913, to be exact!
Unfortunately, many people who enjoyed these early ballets (Petroushka, Firebird) and seek out other music of Stravinsky are turned off by his later works -- a style classified by musicologists as neoclassicism. This is really too bad because he wrote some amazing music.
It is one of the great privileges of my life to have studied with Nadia Boulanger for nearly two years (1971-72). She was very close friends with Stravinsky. It was during one of my lessons -- the first week of April, 1971 -- that Nadia's butler interrupted us to inform her of his passing. She was very emotional, but we finished the lesson before she took some time off to mourn him.
Several months later, I walked into her apartment and sat down at the piano and was amazed to see the gigantic full orchestral score for Le Sacre propped up on the rack. She knew of my interest in this piece, and one of her ways of rewarding hard-working students was to give us a break from the routine of part-writing and analysis to do something different. We spent several lessons on Le Sacre and, like every lesson I ever had with her, I will never forget them.