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 Recording of the Week  100th anniversary of the première of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

Very few musical premières can claim to be as notorious as the evening of 29th May, 1913, when Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, under the baton of Pierre Monteux, presented the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Reports abound of laughter and general uproar from the audience, which apparently reached such a volume that the on-stage dancers could no longer hear the voice of choreographer Nijinsky shouting out the step numbers to them from the wings! It is debatable whether the majority of the criticism was aimed at the music or the choreography, but in any case there is no denying the raw power of the work, with its savage rhythms and frenzied conclusion during which the Chosen One dances herself to death.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle

Of course, the piece remains a technical challenge today, and with its complicated rhythms and continually-changing time signatures it is a great test of any orchestra’s virtuosity. With this in mind, I’ve been very much enjoying Sir Simon Rattle’s recent recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s no doubting the almost unparalleled expertise of this orchestra, but then again Stravinsky himself was famously dismissive of their 1963 recording under their former conductor, Herbert von Karajan (he called it “too polished, a pet savage, rather than a real one”), and so I was very interested to hear whether both conductor and this most refined of orchestras would be able to capture something of the brutal, primeval nature of the work.

What struck me most was Rattle’s focus on the work’s sensuality, especially in its early stages. Even the opening bar is seductive rather than primitive, with Rattle refusing to allow any hint of the fragility that often permeates the terrifyingly high bassoon solo that begins the piece. There is brutality elsewhere: certainly by the end of the first part seduction has given way to sheer violence, and as the sacrifice approaches, the orchestra becomes increasingly ferocious. By the time we arrive at this final Danse sacrale, Rattle has fully let his orchestra ‘off the leash’: the trombones and tubas gain a fantastic bite to their sound, and it makes the end even more raw, as we have been denied such extreme barbarity until these closing moments.

Little details that I often listen for are happily present and correct: the groaning horns come through wonderfully in the section entitled Dances of the Young Girls (complete with a fine pair of antique cymbals!), and there is plenty of strident piccolo trumpet and clarinet in the heavingly chaotic moments just before the infamous Augurs of Spring section. This latter part, with its repeated string chords punctuated by rasping horns, comes across very well indeed, with a weighty string sound interrupted by pleasingly punchy stabs from the eight horns.

If, like me, you’re one of those people for whom one recording of The Rite is nowhere near enough, then you should definitely take a look also at the 100th anniversary collector’s edition released by Decca, which includes no fewer than thirty-eight recordings of the piece, ranging from a 1946 account with Eduard van Beinum conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, to Gustavo Dudamel’s 2010 recording with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Included are many classic accounts, with an impressive list of conductors such as Bernstein, Abbado, Colin Davis, Haitink, Solti, and Monteux himself, and the set also incorporates three recordings in an arrangement for piano duet. Certainly not a collection for the faint of heart, then, but I must say it’s been fascinating to compare the seemingly endless ways of interpreting this great work. Also included is a 1977 Rattle recording with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and two recordings conducted by Karajan, including the 1963 version I mentioned earlier, so you can decide for yourself whether Stravinsky had a point!

Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps

Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps

100th Anniversary Collector's Edition

38 recordings of The Rite of Spring (download not currently available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC