Every conductor worth his or her salt has performed and recorded Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps – celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. From Pierre Monteux, who gave the first performance, to Sir Simon Rattle, who has just released his latest version with the fabled Berlin Philharmonic, there are now over 126 recordings to choose from.
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) was a commission for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, performing in Paris in 1913. As such it was a stage work brought to life by the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky with costumes and decor designed by the artist Nicholas Roerich (original design, left). The orchestra was meticulously rehearsed and unflappably conducted by Pierre Monteux, who had an ambivalent relationship with the work. In his old age he told the biographer Charles Reid, “I did not like Le Sacre then. I have conducted it fifty times since. I do not like it now.”
On 18 February 1914, The Rite received its first concert performance in St Petersburg under Serge Koussevitzky. On 5 April that year, Stravinsky experienced for himself the composition’s success at a concert performance conducted by Monteux. The Rite had its first British concert performance on 7 June 1921 under Eugene Goossens, and its American premiere on 3 March 1922 under Leopold Stokowski. Commentators generally agree that the work has greater impact in the concert hall than in the theatre.
When it was truly modern, i.e. in 1913, Le Sacre posed unusual problems for conductor and orchestra. The players faced extremes of register, seemingly perverse and complicated rhythms, and an extraordinary range of percussion instruments. Monteux had to navigate a sea of tempo changes that required eleven orchestral rehearsals to bring off. Today the work is in the repertoire of every professional orchestra. The players know its difficulties and can focus on style and sonority. Consequently, performances are judged less on bringing the work off and more on its tonal colouring and sheer excitement.
Stravinsky himself maintained that “music should be transmitted and not interpreted” and that a performer’s “talent lies precisely in his faculty for seeing what is actually in the score, and certainly not in a determination to find there what he would like to find.” Like Mahler and Bartók, Stravinsky was meticulous in marking his scores. He used a metronome and he often said that his recordings provided further confirmation of what he wanted with regard to tempo, articulation, phrasing and balance. Even so, Stravinsky the conductor often took tempi that were different from those indicated in the score by Stravinsky the composer.
In 1964, Herbert von Karajan, the legendary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), made his first recording of The Rite. It was reviewed by the composer in a spirit of mischief-making aimed more at critics than conductors. Stravinsky’s described Karajan’s version as “a pet savage rather than a real one”, meaning that it was too comfortable, too plush, too Austro-Hungarian. Glenn Gould, no slouch himself when it came to thinking about music, disagreed, describing it as “the most imaginative and… ‘inspired’ realisation” then on record.
In 1975, after several concert performances during the early 1970s, Karajan re-recorded the work with the BPO. It was a “one-take” performance of remarkable intensity, revelling in the pagan ritual that informs the music. The BPO demonstrated that savagery and coarseness do not equate with authenticity and that even Stravinsky’s works can be interpreted to great effect.
Now we have Sir Simon Rattle’s centenary version, with all the verve and passion of an orchestra that can play anything, whose soloists are imaginative and fearless, and a conductor for whom The Rite is as mother’s milk. Ordinary mortals may never know what it is like to be at home in the playground of the gods…