Stravinsky’s Rite Penetrates Deep into Collective Consciousness

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Varèse, and Stravinsky: Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.5.2013 (MB)

Debussy:Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Varèse Amériques
StravinskyThe Rite of Spring

Another week, another anniversary. Ubiquitous though it may be, and though it might, like Mahler’s symphonies in this if in little else, benefit from fewer, better performances, The Rite of Spring surely deserves mention in its centenary. One can argue about whether it, or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, premiered the previous year, had the greater ‘influence’; that will largely come down to what one decides to mean by that notoriously slippery term. But since that legendary premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Rite has passed not simply through the vessel of its creator, as Stravinsky famously put it, but into our collective consciousness. That has not always been a good thing; too many of today’s performances treat it as a mere orchestral showpiece, reduce it to the level of slightly spicier Rimsky-Korsakov. Boulez’ analysis, available in his Relevés d’apprenti (‘Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship’), should be required reading for anyone tempted to proceed down that path. Certainly anyone having heard Boulez conduct the work is unlikely ever to forget the experience. (I am fortunate to have done so twice.) So, a hundred years on, performing the Rite brings its own challenges – not least, how does one make it shock anew?

Clever programming helps – but all too often that can fall down unless performances match it not only in quality but in conception. Fortunately, Esa-Pekka Salonen hit or rather engendered the jackpot in both respects. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is as good a candidate as any for the first piece of twentieth-century music. Its composer would famously give a two-piano performance of The Rite with its composer and minus its final ‘Sacrifical Dance’ in 1912. More importantly here, Salonen imparted a marriage of warmth and coolness that presaged a similar dialectical confrontation in the second half. The performance, conducted but not micromanaged, was wondrously flexible, especially when it came to Samuel Coles’s delicious flute arabesques. The Philharmonia strings were on far better form than they had been for last week’s Wagner anniversary concert – rich, even glamorous in their sheen, though not too much, and only when truly given their head. And the climax may well have been the most erotic I have heard, positively Tristan-like in its pulsations. (Think of the opening of the second act.) Except, of course, Wagner’s metaphysics are gone, replaced not with Strauss’s Nietzschean materialism but with Debussy’s far more radical indeterminacy. Boulez, a master conductor of The Rite, not to mention one of the greatest composers of the later twentieth century, stood not so very far away. Likewise Mallarmé – and his union with Boulez in Pli selon pli.

Varèse was present at that first Rite performance in Paris, prior to his emigration. Amériques was his first large-scale work following his arrival, though here it was given in the reduced, 1927 scoring. (The orchestra is still huge!) Its opening alto flute solo necessarily brought back memories of Debussy’s Prélude, though the specific instrument, here splendidly played by Rowland Sutherland, with equally necessity brought to mind Boulez, also a master conductor of Varèse, and Le Marteau sans maître. A New World cityscape it may be, at least at some level, but Amériques under Salonen also gave us presentiments of the primæval stirrings of The Rite. He was equally deft at imparting dramatic form and inevitability to a work which, in lesser hands, can all too easily sound sprawling. Lest that sound dry, I can assure you that this was also a riot to put to shame those dubious events at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées., a riot that took upon itself many forms of wildness. And what a tremendous conclusion! Salonen visibly willed the orchestra to a still higher decibel count, its noise finally managing to drown out the coughing couple – it is, apparently, still more fun with a partner – seated behind me

Such was the power of that performance of Amériques that I worried Salonen’s Rite might pale somewhat. Quite the contrary. This proved a performance to match one I thought I should never hear approached from Boulez and the LSO. The challenges were new, of course; that first bassoonist never had to vie with an accursed mobile telephone, but I doubt that he could possibly have matched Amy Harman in richness of tone or precision, initiating duly weird – in the very best sense – responses from her orchestral colleagues. Salonen’s sense of flow here at the opening was similar to that in Prélude à l’après-midi; consciously or otherwise, links were being forged. Ghosts of Petrushka began to dance on acid. Yet something older and newer was getting under way – and it truly felt, in mind and body alike, as though it were a celebration, a rite. All those pointless showpiece performances were forgotten; this was the real thing. Presentiments of later Stravinsky, for instance the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, were offered – but in a sense they were not, for whereas that later masterwork is frozen, almost objet-like, here it was part of a gigantic, world-changing thaw. There were a few slips here and there, but they mattered little or nothing, unless one were missing the point to Beckmesser-like proportions.

This, then, was a performance that combined, indeed brought into fruitful conflict, various opposing forces – just like the work itself, and its plot. It was viscerally exciting and musically satisfying; it was as sardonic as Stravinsky’s own performances, yet benefited from far greater orchestral weight and, (dare I say?) theatrical imagination. In that sense, it did what seem people claim to hear in Gergiev’s performances, though I have found them mostly an incoherent mess. And those dancing reminiscences of Petrushka kept coming. Tension was maintained until the sudden close of the first part. Then we found ourselves in territory similar and yet quite changed. It soon became clear what had changed: the fate, quite inescapable, of the chosen one had been ordained. Now we could only sit it out, fearful and yet complicit, indeed relishing it; for it felt that we were involved, dramatically, almost as if in a Wagner drama. (We have not even really begun to relate the tale of Stravinsky’s debts to his supposed antithesis.) Alluring sweetness, not in the least cloying, characterised rich violas. Controlled delirium marked the evocation of the ancestors. I could list many such wonderful features of the Philharmonia’s outstanding performance. However, the crucial thing was not just that they added up to more than the sum of their parts, but that Stravinsky’s miraculous score was communicated and experienced as a searing drama. Just as drums hammered blood-lust and carnage into our immediate consciousness – a word to which my thoughts keep returning – so was the final nail hammered into Stravinsky’s absurd claim that music could not express anything other than itself. The Rite was experienced as vividly as the Symphonie fantastique, yet penetrated far deeper into our collective consciousness, the consciousness of our so-called ‘civilisation’, shown to be anything but. It emerged as a work of 2013, not 1913.

Mark Berry