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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Version for orchestra* and version for piano four hands
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies (conductor and piano)
Maki Namekawa (piano)
rec. Stadtcasino Basel, Switzerland, 28-30 October 2013*; Musiktheater Linz, Austria, 25-26 October 2013; *live recording

There have always been composers who seemed to be ahead of their time; Berlioz has always struck me as one such when I listen to his Symphonie Fantastique, a work written as long ago as 1830 and specifying no fewer than 90 musicians, more than for any work for orchestra up to that time. What the audience reaction to it was one can hardly imagine when one considers that this was three years before the birth of Brahms, when Schumann was only twenty and Schubert had only died two years before.
Speculation can be put aside when it comes the audience’s reactions to the première of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) which took place on 29 May 1913, for it is probably the best documented of all receptions for a new work in the history of music. There was quite simply a near riot and it is said that the police had to be called in. However, as the booklet notes explain “... it has to be said that Nijinsky’s choreography, with its stamping, twitching body movements that seem to truly mock the ideal of weightless grace normally expected in dance, was at least as much to blame as Stravinsky’s music”. It goes on to say that “... this was not a performance for those of a nervous disposition, since the composer had transformed the orchestra to a great extent into a gasping, snorting, and above all hammering monster producing a sound that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the elegance of traditional ballet music.”
One could say that Diaghilev had taken a risk in commissioning not one but three ballet scores for his Ballets Russes from this virtually unknown composer. The Rite of Spring was the third after The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). Fortunately for both of them The Firebird had been a great success.
It is significant that last year (2013) was the centenary of that first performance because this disc which was recorded live last October must surely be the nearest thing to that première in terms of sound, making every other I’ve ever heard a pale, restrained and safe by comparison. This gets closer to the subtitle of the work Scenes from pagan Russia than anything I’ve experienced before. The gentle opening notes belie the powerhouse that lurks in the wings waiting to be unleashed. The eerie nature of the opening that was used to such great effect as a soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia is shattered first at around 3:56 by the first bursts of timpani. This is an orchestra that through the vision of its conductor genuinely knows and understands the music. As a result there is never a feeling that it is just going through the motions of playing the notes — every note is perfectly represented as it should be with a real feeling of ensemble playing at its best. The pacing is perfect, devoid of any feeling of haste but measured to extract the greatest impact from this uniquely original score. If, like me, you have never heard a Rite of Spring with the orchestra sounding like a “... gasping, snorting, and above all hammering monster ...” then this is what you’ve been waiting for. Prepare yourself to be bludgeoned at various points, particularly by the bass drum which gets close to sounding like a steam hammer in a foundry. It is quite simply a fabulous performance that is difficult to imagine being bettered and it must surely become a benchmark recording that will remain so for a long time into the future.
It is only recently that the manuscript for the piano duet version has come to light though it is known that it was first published a few days before the infamous Paris première. Deriving from the short score and as a development of the solo piano version (since lost) it contains some minor differences in comparison to the orchestral version. In this interesting coupling we have conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his wife, pianist Maki Namekawa, giving the score their all in a powerfully impactful performance. It evinces the same impressive interest as the original solo piano version of Pictures at an exhibition does when set alongside the brilliant Ravel orchestration which we have become more used to hearing.
This is an altogether important release that Stravinsky fans will find a must-have as soon as they hear it.
Steve Arloff

Masterwork Index: Le Sacre du printemps