Monday 5 November 2012

The Rite of Spring - a 20th Century Collossus

Let me state it up-front right away.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, is my favorite piece of classical music, bar none.  It is also, without peer, the single most influential piece of music ever composed.  By anyone.  Ever.  Here is a nice little primer, a YouTube video featuring interviews with members of the London Symphony Orchestra:
Stravinsky takes the organized concept of composed orchestral music as understood at the turn of the 20th Century and throws it out the window.  He asks instruments to play outside of their normal register.  He features unexpected instruments in prominent roles.  Melodies are strained and atonal.  Likewise the harmonies – in fact tonal dissonance is core to the piece.  There is no tonal key.  Pre-conceived ideas of rhythm are chewed up and spat out.   Hardly a bar goes by without a syncopated element.  The time signatures vary wildly – at times changing every single bar.  Odd-beat meters abound – there is even one bar with eleven pounding beats to it (you won’t miss it!).

The Rite calls out to be played with a primal ferocity for which nothing written previously could have prepared the first performers.  It is anarchic music, yet it absolutely demands the greatest skill from the conductor to keep the marshaled forces in place.  He must conduct like a lion tamer, in a cage with a hungry, bad-tempered lion.  The best performances teeter on the edge.  Virtuoso-level skill is demanded across the entire orchestra (well, maybe not from the triangle player … I can say this, having played triangle once in a performance of the Rite).  Individual players are called upon to produce outburst after outburst with confidence and total commitment.  Anything less will sound disjointed, timid, and unconvincing.  Famously, at its 1913 premiere in Paris, a riot broke out!

The Rite of Spring is probably the single most frequently-played and widely-recorded piece of orchestral music in existence.  I have totally lost track of how many recordings there are.  I have many of them in my collection, but there are well over 100 that I have never even heard.  You could spend your entire life doing nothing but tracking down recorded performances of The Rite.  How, then, to pick a recommended recording?

All I can offer is my own opinion.  An opinion that could conceivably have changed by the time you read this!  Regrettably, it is an opinion that does not lend itself to the world of Computer Audio.  Your mileage may vary, but here we go anyway:  The best recording of The Rite of Spring was made by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958.  Stravinsky himself is reliably reported to have exclaimed “Wow!” upon hearing it.  Trouble is, it is not available on CD.  And the LP is long out of print.  My own LP was bought for me as a birthday gift by my son who found it on E-Bay, part of a boxed set issued by Time Life back in the 1970’s (The 100 Greatest Recordings of All Time).  Also, if you know what you are doing, it is possible to track down a well-recorded vinyl rip which can be downloaded from the nether regions of the internet in 24/96 format.  It sounds great on my high-end system.

For those of you intrigued enough to want to learn more, here is an absolutely top-drawer performance on YouTube, featuring the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performing live in the famous Concertgebouw concert hall:

This is a dynamic and precise rendition, captured in 720p with some very fine videography (the focus on the long shots excepted).  Despite appearing to have escaped from Orwell’s 1984, and despite spending long periods of time with his head buried deep in the score, conductor Jaap van Zweden extracts a disciplined yet ferocious performance from his mostly young players.  Really, there is not much to complain about here.  Quite spectacular!

Doing a quick Google search, there appears to be a hybrid SACD released by Exton featuring this orchestra/conductor combo, although I suspect it is a studio recording.  I will try to see if I can get hold of it.
Everybody needs a copy of The Rite in their record collection.  Let us know which is your favourite.