A Terrific Opener to the Philharmonia’s Stravinsky Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Myths & Rituals: Armitage Gonel Dance (Karole Armitage, choreographer); Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen. Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.5.2016 (CC)

Fanfare for three trumpets (1953)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947)
Agon (1953-57)
The Rite of Spring (1911-13)

In typically lavish style, the Philharmonia has published a huge and detailed programme booklet to accompany their Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals series. This series is set to be a major event. While in terms of duration this first concert might be viewed as short measure, in terms of sheer professionalism and quality, it punched way above its weight.

The programme, given the title Rituals, actually began with the short Fanfare for three trumpets, originally intended as part of Agon: brief, to the point and shot through with Stravinsky’s characteristic voice. It was also an excellent bedfellow for Salonen’s performance of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The Philharmonia wind had a very rounded sound, arguably too rounded for this repertoire, although there was a more acerbic tinge in evidence later on. The dancers for Agon entered, a little distractingly, during a chorale statement of the Symphonies, and then just sat, legs dangling, awaiting their moment in the limelight.

And their moment came with a performance of one of Stravinsky’s true masterpieces, Agon. Along with Orpheus and Apollon musagète, this is part of a trio of Greek ballets for the New York City Ballet.  The sense of emotional distancing, so strong in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, bled into Agon on the present occasion. The back of the stage was as high as possible and the choir area modified to present a dancers’ arena. Performed by a mere six dancers (three male, three female), instead of the original twelve, a red background formed the backdrop for this astonishing performance. The Philharmonia has rarely sounded so inside the music, due in no short measure to Salonen’s own interpretative confidence. The effectiveness of Stravinsky’s massively inventive scoring – solo violin and trombone at one point, for example, or the sheer fragility of other moments – was what really stood out here. Sophisticated, expert and a near-perfect reflection of Stravinsky’s ballet in sound; the dancers’ sometimes ritualised movements added another dimension, for sure, but it was the astonishing accuracy and rightness of the performance that marked this out as a truly great experience.

A very different world – after massive reorganisation of the stage space – is heard in the Rite of Spring; it was interesting, though, that the voice of Stravinsky was unmistakeable throughout, just as it is in the late, twelve-tone works. Of all the performances of the Rite I have heard – and there have been many – this has to count amongst the finest – if not the finest. The normally Rolls Royce sound of the Philharmonia became more raw, more intense, more real. This, coupled with Salonen’s X-Ray way with the score – and a very linear way, too – was what made this performance so much more than the sum of its parts. New detail seemed to fly out, but with no sense of unnecessary highlighting: the very present bass clarinet in the first section, for example. Not for Salonen, either, a breathless, virtuoso final ‘Sacrificial Dance’; the trajectory of the entire piece had been so perfectly tracked that there was no need. The lyricism of the earlier stages of Part II, the delicacy of the two muted trumpets alone are but two examples of the more delicate side of the Rite, so often ignored, that was honoured here. On cracking form, the Philharmonia’s account was almost faultless (an unfortunate but passing instant from the cor anglais notwithstanding); the work’s final gesture was given with the utmost confidence. A remarkable performance, and one that bodes well for what promises to be a most important series.

Colin Clarke




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