Friday, September 27, 2013

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring/The Firebird Suite

The premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in late May 1913 has remained one of the most controversial and oft-discussed in the history of so-called "classical music."  This is probably as clear an example of any of a new music being seen, by some, as too radical, especially in a genre as conservative as "classical," but eventually becoming part of the established canon.  With all that is gone on in that classification of music since then, including Varese, Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Reich, Riley and many, many others, modern ears can hardly find anything particularly shocking about The Rite, although listening to the music of the time might give some indication of what a large proportion of the audience that evening found repulsive.

There was another element to the uproar, which was the ballet's choreography by the great Vaslav Nijinsky, who was appointed to the role by Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the famed Ballets Russes dance company.  The combination of Stravinsky's innovative and challenging music and Nijinsky's bracing and forward-thinking choreography may not, however, been as significant in the general mayhem that resulted in the theater as the demographic forces at work among the crowd itself.  To some observers and chroniclers, the well-heeled concertgoers in the boxes and the so-called "Bohemians" consisting of artists, writers and others who despised the patricians were already manifesting great tension even before the opening strains of the music were played.

In any case, it was very shortly after the piece began and Nijinsky started to dance that the boos, hisses, catcalls and other expressions of disdain rained down, largely, it appears, from the boxes, where the fashionable set expected conventional, beautiful music.  Meantime, the "Bohemians" began to react and the cacophony that resulted all but drowned out the orchestra.  The light were either turned back on or flashed on and off to try to still the crowd, while a few dozen members of the audience were escorted from the theater.  The performance then continued largely quietly and there were curtain calls for all involved by the end.

While some reviews were hostile to the music, others were aimed at the choreography, and some were directed towards the boorish behavior of those in the crowd who raised the biggest fuss.  In any event, though Stravinsky was beginning to become a known entity through his earlier ballets for Diaghilev, including The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), the Rite of Spring gave him unexpected publicity because of the premiere, though the music, with all of its innovation and daring, proved to be, rightfully, more deserving of posterity.

In the notes to the excellent recording by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (England), the composer is quoted as saying that, "I aw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring."  Indeed, the plaintive, high-pitched opening bassoon solo leads to a sylvan ambience and there are moments of quietude that are very beautiful.  But, then, the flipside comes with the wild, bacchic, orgiastic frenzy of the virgin's dance and the general savagery of the sacrifice.  Through all of this, Stravinsky's use of tonality, rhythm, dissonance and the unusual sounds and note combinations used throughout the piece.  As an amateur, YHB can't go much further than this, but even the untrained ear can pick up a general sense of power, energy and a "difference" in this piece to other music of the era.

The other piece on this disc, The Firebird Suite, is a reworking of the first ballet Stravinsky created with Diaghilev's company thirty-five years earlier.  It features a smaller orchestra and contains about two-thirds of the music from the original conception, which was based on a Russian folk tale.  There is a more traditional, perhaps Romantic, sound to this work, which, while not having the overt radicalism of The Rite of Spring, contains the same sureness of touch.  It is more melodic, harmonically and rhythmically consistent, and has a richness that shows the composer's debt to his mentor, the great Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps best known for his Scheherazade, someday to be highlighted here.  While not as lauded as The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite is a striking and beautiful work and it proves to be a nice pairing with the other.

The sound is excellent on this 32-bit digital recording and the performance, conducted by Yuri Simonov, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is outstanding--there are several other recordings in this series that have been and will be featured here.

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