Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring Invigorates and Excites

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Janáček, Ravel, Stravinsky: Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Thursday 9th May 2013 (MC)

Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926)
Ravel: Piano Concerto (1929/31)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1911/13, rev. 1943)

Juanjo Mena, © photo Sussi Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena, © photo Sussi Ahlburg

Since the start of the year at the Bridgwater Hall the BBC Philharmonic using four conductors has featured five Igor Stravinsky scores in a number of concerts including ballets The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the rarely heard opera-oratorio Oedipus rex. It was 100 years ago this month that the feature work of the evening, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, was introduced at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. There can be few classical lovers unaware that the Rite caused a riot in the theatre at its introduction and is probably the most controversial work in all music history. Here Stravinsky is depicting what he describes as ‘Scenes of Pagan Russia’ and cannot be accused of underplaying his vision. I’m not sure if the Rite that chief conductor Juanjo Mena considers as, “perhaps the greatest ballet score ever written” has the power to shock an experienced audience anymore but it certainly has the power to invigorate and excite.

I’ve heard the Rite performed several times in recent months and have delighted in some marvellous playing but none matched the impact of the BBC Phil under Maestro Mena in this visceral masterpiece requiring massive orchestral forces. Balancing the competing weights of sound from the various orchestral sections against the challenges of the Bridgewater Hall’s sometimes quirky acoustic characteristics was never going to be an exact science for Mena. From where I usually sit I feel that the acoustic does neither the horns nor the bassoons any favours despite how well they are played.

In the first part of the Rite, depicting the spring-like renewal of nature, the earthy reediness of the opening bassoon solo and the flickering and rotating woodwind contributed to an otherworldly quality. Gripping the attention like a vice, the violent stamping of the Harbingers of Spring – Dance of the Adolescents created a potent atmosphere of menace and violence punctuated by bubbling woodwind figures. Spring Rounds quickly built up a heavy and unnerving sense of aggression with Mena venting the full weight of the orchestra’s brutal power. Rapidly moving, savage yelps and earth shattering pounding took centre stage in the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes. Throughout the Procession of the Sage a nerve jangling disturbance dominated and was almost too much to bear. A short respite was provided in the Adoration of the Earth: The Sage with a beautifully played dreamy passage. In the closing section of the first part of the Dance of the Earth Mena unleashed a barbaric outburst of toxic aggression and power.

The second section, The Sacrifice, is an atonement and thanksgiving to the consuming power of nature. Soon a quite magical scene developed that shimmered with impressive contributions from the assured woodwind. In the Mystic Circle of the Adolescents it felt like glimmers of optimism were to be found in a tormented world yet as disturbingly one virgin is chosen for sacrifice. Venomous and unrelenting hammer blows of doom-laden conflict infused the Glorification of the Chosen One. In the Ritual Action of the Ancestors a thawing of the tension and a second of silence was effective but extremely short-lived. A heady and intoxicating atmosphere of optimism was generated in the Ritual Action of the Ancestors containing a contrasting section of stormy aggression. Forceful with a hostile ferocity Stravinsky twists, strains, rips and claws at his rhythms and harmonies in the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One. Here Mena provoked unremitting assaults of torturous hammer blows that continued to a shattering climax like a volcanic eruption.

Some years ago I was in my car unable to leave my seat as I was so transfixed by the stunning music on the car radio of the Adagio assai from the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major. It’s a glorious score but one that still tends to get overlooked in the concert hall in favour of the heavyweight Romantic concertos from Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Schumann et al. Like a reflection of the composer himself this highly cultured G major Concerto of chamber orchestra proportions has absorbed a degree of jazzy, bluesy elements and evocations of his Basque homeland. French-Canadian soloist Louis Lortie who must have played the score countless times delivered an enjoyable enough performance with the balance slightly skewed in favour of technical precision over vibrancy and spontaneity. In my beloved Adagio assai movement Lortie delivered an abundance of French polish and the section where the cor anglais of Gillian Callow plays an extended solo with the piano over violas and cellos was meltingly beautiful, and beguiling. Everything was in fine condition with Mena ensuring compelling playing with an abundance of verve within the catch me if you can momentum of the Presto: Finale.

The evening’s proceedings had commenced with Janáček’s extrovert and stirring Sinfonietta, a late five movement work demonstrating the composer’s strongly personal sound world. A visual treat of the twenty six brass players, thirteen of them who played in the first and last movements only were located in a separate rank behind the orchestra in the choir seats. Although at times I felt a degree of unsteadiness the vigorous brass played their hearts out, the strings shone golden especially in the two Andante movements. With his large ranks of players Mena’s punchy interpretation of sturdy control made this an exciting curtain raiser.

Juanjo Mena is making quite a habit of conducting special concerts with the BBC Philharmonic and I would certainly relish the opportunity of hearing this concert in its entirety again. Thankfully the concert was being recorded for live transmission on BBC Radio 3 so here is a plea to the orchestra management to issue a recording which by my reckoning should fit snugly on a compact disc.

Michael Cookson