Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Petrushka
Andrew Litton/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS)
‘I confessed to Sergey Diaghilev that I didn’t understand a single note of The Rite of Spring. With a smile he turned to me: “Monteux, it’s a masterpiece which is going to completely revolutionise music and make you famous, because you’re going to conduct it”.’ Pierre Monteux’s anecdote raises a smile – and a question. Does The Rite of Spring still have the power to shock? The riotous Paris première of 1913 is the stuff of legends, but has the technical precision with which orchestras tackle it today made it comfortable listening? After watching the ballet in a reconstruction of the original choreography some years ago, I came away hugely disappointed rather than excited or scandalized.
Thankfully, recordings do come along which jolt you out of any comfort zone and in this case it’s the actual recording which does that; not that the performance isn’t darned fine to boot, but the efforts from the engineering team for BIS in the Grieghallen, Bergen, are truly magnificent. The 5.0 SACD surround sound helps, of course, but the results are also thrilling in stereo. Solo instruments have tremendous presence, particularly the bass ones; the bass drum thwack at the end of rehearsal mark 21 (4’36”) and at the start of the ‘Ritual of Abduction’ (6’29”) made my whole house quake; the contrabassoon quavers at rehearsal mark 62 in ‘The Ritual of the Two Tribes’ (12’27”) have real bite; and the pesante first crotchets in the bar from basses and bassoons in ‘Spring Rounds’ trudge heavily (reh mark 37, 8’16”) while the timpani and tam-tam flourishes which follow (9’51”) are overwhelming, seeming to burst violently from the speakers.
Andrew Litton conducts the Bergen Philharmonic in what is at times a visceral reading. The playing is rhythmically sharp, if not quite at Stravinsky’s own breakneck speeds all the time. Nobody knew this score as well as the composer or the conductor of the première, and I particularly miss the Parisian woodwinds at times; Monteux’s slightly nasal bassoon is replaced here with a riper, more seductive sound for the initial solo, equally attractive but in a different way.
The Rite is paired with the 1911 version of Petrushka, benefiting from slightly fuller orchestration than Stravinsky’s later 1947 revision. Litton manages the sudden tempo shifts seamlessly and achieves a lightness of attack, suitable for ballet; the three against two rhythms for the Ballerina’s waltz and Blackamoor’s writhing are juxtaposed well. He conjures up Stravinsky’s colourful score afresh. Particularly worthy of mention are the frenzied trumpets to depict Petrushka’s frustration in Scene II (1’00”) and his ghost at the close, furiously shaking his puppet fist in defiance. There’s some lithe flute playing, tenderly voiced and never rushed. Cold cellos and basses, played sul ponticello, accompany the menacing cor anglais theme as the Blackamoor discovers Petrushka and the Ballerina together in Scene III (track 3, 1’27”). The ‘Peasant and Bear’ episode finds the clarinets wailing and the ‘Dance of the Coachmen’ has an earthy thrust worthy of the Shrovetide Fair.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen Petrushka on stage, or in the concert hall for that matter, and a recording as vividly successful as this one makes me yearn to see it once more. I’m pleased to read that a recording of the full Firebird ballet is next up for Litton and his Norwegian orchestra. In summary, if you’re looking for a freshly painted Petrushka or a Rite to shake you up a bit, this is shockingly good. Just make sure the neighbours are out first.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Petrushka; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Litton (BIShh SACD1474)
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/ Igor Stravinsky (22 discs, Sony) 88697103112 (1960)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/ Pierre Monteux (Decca, 7 discs) 475 7798 (1956)
This review originally appeared in IRR.