Stravinsky: Rite of Spring, LSO, Riccardo
Chailly, Barbican 22 March
Ives, Bartok & Stravinsky: LSO, Riccardo Chailly, Barbican 23 March
For the wrong conductor (and often the right one), a performance of the Rite of Spring can be a nerve-shredding experience. It is one of the few works that leaves no margin for error, with many performances embracing catastrophe almost inevitably. Most collapse under the weight of Stravinsky's extraordinary tempo markings - even before the beginning of the sacrificial dance. This happened most noticeably at a Philharmonia concert some years ago when the conductor was Valery Gergiev. There, the tempi were so broad as to make rhythm irrelevant, with the work suddenly, and unexpectedly, plundered of its voltage. Not here, however. Riccardo Chailly's two Rites with the London Symphony Orchestra were both electrifying, with speeds (albeit short of Stavinsky's own metronome markings - but then everyone is) much faster than I have heard for a long time.
Chailly himself confessed to moments of nervousness, particularly in conducting the concluding sacrifice. These fears were misplaced, for both performances had a growth and energy that dispelled the illusion of the Rite as a work that can nowadays appear rather tame. His first performance, whilst by no means under-powered, perhaps suffered from being played 'cold', as it were, but his second was a shattering performance, at once earthbound as well as virulent.
The second Rite was better on many other counts, too: the phrasing, particularly of the woodwind, was more transparent with the individual timbres of bassoon, clarinet and flutes given greater characterisation by the superb LSO players. Rachel Gough's opening bassoon solo positively teemed with inflected personality, and the mystery of the opening unravelled more beautifully than I have heard before. Brass were staggeringly rich, shrouding the Barbican in a gleaming coat of chilled bronze. The strings were often epic in their Teutonic chords, here given monumental weight. The close of the Adoration of the Earth was a triumph of virtuosity.
And virtuosity was in abundance during Bartok's Music for String, Percussion and Celeste. The opening fugue was spellbinding, with strings harbouring their desolation liked massed mourners. The percussion were gold indeed in a performance that moulded together the elements of fantasy, Bacchanalian joyousness, and phantasmagoric ghostliness. The piece shimmered and threw out its light with a calligraphic touch. Ive's The Unanswered Question was hypnotically staged - four flutes and a lone trumpet before the audience, and a string orchestra off stage weaving beauty from the wings. The solo trumpet asked his question, and the flutes responded. Magical.
It is fitting that this concert, with timpani so central to both the Stravinsky and the Bartok, should also be the last for the London Symphony Orchestra's principal timpanist, Kurt-Hans Goedicke. He had played the Rite of Spring under Stravinsky and told Chailly during rehearsals for the work that when Stravinsky had conducted the piece with the LSO he had added a second timpani stroke at the work's close. This was added for this performance. After thirty four years in the orchestra his farewell concert could not have been finer.
Riccardo Chailly's three concerts with the LSO have all been outstanding, so I am happy to say he will be back next year. During his talk on the Rite of Spring, he at one stage said, "I am a Varèse freak". In 2001 he will conduct Varèse's Amériques with the LSO - it should prove unmissable.
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