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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Riot Act: The Rite of Spring Turns 100

Reflections on Igor Stravinsky's ballet masterpiece.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Do the circumstances of a work's premiere out-weigh the importance of the work itself?
Costumes for the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, better known in this country under its original title The Rite of Spring is one work where that is entirely possible. The Rite premiered in Paris 100 years ago, and the audience's reaction to this new music had shadowed it ever since: a near-riot of well-dressed Parisians booing, catcalling, and in more than a few cases, getting caught up in the violence of the music and assaulting their neighbors.

The cops showed up at intermission.

This was Stravinsky's third work for the Ballet-Russe, following the wild successes of The Firebird and Petrushka. Serge Diaghalev's company of Russian dancers were the toast of Paris, featuring the young Alexander Nijinsky. For the Rite, the dancers were asked to recreate the imagined primality of pagan Russia, a series of violent, primitive dances that climaxed in the sacrifice of a young virgin to nameless gods.

Agent provocateur: Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky's brutal, modern score used pounding, primal rhythms. jarring woodwind melodies and blasts of percussion and brass to convey the sound of spring awakening and a village celebrating the new season. The second half of the work, with muted choirs of brass ushering the victim to her final sacrificial dance, is the root of most "suspense" music in Hollywood movies.

This music is familiar now, but it must have struck listeners in 1913 Paris with the force of heavy metal or hip-hop, two modern genres that owe some of their primal musical power to the Rite. There was simply nothing to compare it to, and the audience responded by flipping out en masse.

Today, the Rite is more commonly heard in the concert hall, as a vehicle for a star conductor to show his command of treacherous cross-rhythms and pagan sacrifice. As a result, there are over one hundred recordings of the score in the catalogue.

With that in mind, here are a couple of recommendations. (We are not going to bother with the 100th Anniversary set reissued by Decca a few months ago, that contains 38 recordings of the work on a whopping 20 compact discs.)

Pierre Monteux conducting The Rite of Spring.

Boston Symphony Orchestra cond. Pierre Monteux (RCA, 1951)
One of the finest recordings of the late mono era, with the superb Boston forces. Monteux is the conductor who led the work's premiere in 1913.

New York Philharmonic cond. Leonard Bernstein (Sony, 1958)
Newly reissued (in a super-deluxe edition with original artwork and extensive liner notes), Bernstein's visceral performance (made at the St. Georges Hotel in Brooklyn Heights!) earned the composer's stamp of approval. The new mastering makes one (and one's neighbors) acutely aware of just how loud this score is. Stravinsky himself approved this one.

Igor Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring

Columbia Symphony Orchestra cond. Igor Stravinsky (Sony, 1960)
The composer himself made three recordings of The Rite of Spring. His approach is a little slower and less driven than Bernstein's though not lacking in ferocity. This recording made for CBS is in fine stereo.

Cleveland Orchestra cond. Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon, 1991)
Boulez has been accused of polishing the rough edges of the score, but his perfectionism brings a precision to all the brutality, as if each shot and blast of the score was aimed with the help of a laser sight. This is his second recording of the score with the Cleveland Orchestra, and one of the best of the digital era.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.