Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (version for piano 4 hands) (1913) [34:17]
The Rite of Spring (version for orchestra) (1913) [34:10]
Piano Duo Trenkner/Speidel
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Stefan Blunier
rec. no details provided

The Rite of Spring played by two players at one keyboard, which opens this disc, might seem a mere curiosity, but it is much more than that. It is a valid alternative version, like several of Ravel’s works that exist in piano and in orchestral guise. Indeed the first published version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was the one for piano four hands recorded here. There was also a version for piano two hands that Nijinsky used to rehearse the dancers, but that is now assumed to be lost. Stravinsky was a pianist, and usually composed at the piano. His previous ballet was Petrushka, with its important piano part, and the final instrumentation of Les Noces was to feature four pianos.

There is a sense in which we are hearing here the origins of the work, which is often so percussive and at certain points betrays its pianistic origins. There is even a priceless bit of film of the older Stravinsky demonstrating for the camera the two tonal chords he combined to give the pounding dissonance that drives the Dance of the Adolescent Girls. This percussive drive is harder to realize with a large orchestra that one keyboard, and many harmonic and contrapuntal details can be clearer in this version, but that is not always the case on this disc.

The Piano Duo Trenkner/Speidel are an established piano duo, (though both women - Evelinde Trenkner and Sontraud Speidel - have solo careers also), whose live performances of large orchestral scores include Bruckner and Mahler symphonies. One German critic ranked their Mahler 6 recording as in his top three, with the discs of Boulez and Bernstein. So it comes as a slight surprise that here, though they give quite a good performance, they don’t sound very engaged with this primitive drama. They are also guilty of some inappropriately expressive rubato in some of the slower mystical passages, including in the Introduction. The composer could be notoriously scathing about that sort of thing in performances of his music. The piano sound is rather shallow and clangorous.

The orchestral version however is a considerable compensation, as it has plenty of impetus and colour and none of the expressive nudges found in the two-piano version. The Beethoven Orchestra Bonn is clearly an accomplished band, if not the weightiest in tone, and Stefan Blunier knows his way round this ever-challenging score. The rhythm is incisive and the frequent unexpected stresses register precisely. In particular there is always a balletic feel; the sense that the work was meant to be danced. Yet so many versions treat it as a virtuoso showpiece, an exciting thirty-five minute work to close an orchestral concert, with little need to visualize what exactly is happening at any moment in these “Pictures from pagan Russia”. Here we get some engagement with a primeval ritual, a sense of just how strange that initial vision of Stravinsky’s must have seemed. There are some properly swift tempi, such that the whole piece is played in 34:10 (the score suggest a playing time of 33 minutes). The recorded sound is much better than that for the piano.

There are many other versions available and many classic recordings have resurfaced such as those from 1950 and 1959 conducted by Markevitch and in 1997 coupled together by Testament (SBT1076). Since then Rattle (EMI review review), Boulez (CBS and DG) and Bernstein (CBS and DG) have all had their adherents. I heard a superb live performance given by the LSO under Péter Eötvös in London this year that led me to seek out his fine 2005 version on BMC. But this account from Blunier can hold up its head even in such company. There are alternative versions of the piano four hands score also, and the August Gramophone magazine strongly recommended Takahashi and Lehmann on Audite, which I have not heard. If you especially want a recent disc with both versions as here, then the Sinfonieorchester Basel with Dennis Russell Davies, who also joins Maki Namekawa at the piano, was praised very highly indeed on this site (review). For we Rite-obsessives (there are quite a few of us out there), there can be no end to the quest for the perfect version, but a new disc such as this one provides us with a few more insights into both what we are seeking, and alas what we are not.

Roy Westbrook

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