The Story of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps
A Film by Peter Rump rec. 1999
Gergiev (narrator) ARTHAUS MUSIK 109211 Blu-ray [57:00]
Pick this up in a store (if people still do such things in our online world), and you will read on the back of the box “This programme records the meeting of two Russian musical giants, as Valery Gergiev, the most charismatic and dynamic conductor of our day, rehearses, performs and discusses Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a masterpiece of the twentieth-century.” Well as a blurb about this film I suppose that is true, but enjoyable as this 1999 film is on one viewing, this description promises rather more than it delivers.
Stravinsky once said of, I think, Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue that it was “contemporary music that will be contemporary for ever”, a remark I often feel someone else should have made about the Rite of Spring. The score is very obviously very dear to Gergiev. He not only talks about its history and explains what it was such an important and innovative composition, but also explains the source of his affinity with the work. As a student pianist in Moscow he learned it at the keyboard, alongside the pianist Alexander Toradze (who Gergiev describes as obsessively determined to make a complete transcription for just one pianist). Cue a reunion as the grown up artists are seen recreating their labours at one keyboard. “It was the happiest time of my life” insists Toradze, and Gergiev adds “Stravinsky was our hero of course, even though there were very few performances in Soviet times”.
Much of the film is given over to Gergiev rehearsing the work with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (which is uncredited on the box). He expends much of that labour trying to get players to look at what’s on the page and forget certain musical habits, especially playing espressivo (“it’s not a Puccini opera”). After a few failed efforts to get a cor anglais player to adjust to this viewpoint, he asks him “what language don’t you speak, Chinese?” The player admits this regrettable failing and is told “well, play it in Chinese”. He works hard on these things, seeking aggression and primitivism, undoing late 19th century orchestral good manners. Gergiev insists on the independence of the wind parts, getting the alto flute to play its fluttering music ever faster and louder, and saying “don’t listen to the clarinet. I know you are professionals and trained to listen to each other, but if you do that here, Stravinsky will disappear.”
There are a couple of segments of more continuous playing of the score, where we can hear a very fast view of the Dance of the Adolescents and a very sluggish one of the Sacrificial Dance at the end of the work. There is also an absurdly long pause before the final chord, when none at all is marked. (Boulez first did this, and Stravinsky, aware that the very close was not the best part of the work, said that it “turned a weak idea into a banal one”.) At another point the composer admits “there are pages of this score I still like, but tens of pages to which I am now indifferent, but I wasn’t when I wrote them.”
It is the composer then who is the star of the film, in several all-too-brief uses of footage of Stravinsky himself. He is seen conducting The Rite in concert at one stage, but we are not told where and when (these segments are all uncaptioned). He also plays at the piano the famous discord pounded out through the Dance of the Adolescents, and says “I like this chord”, and tells how Diaghilev, on first hearing its many iterations asked timidly “how long will it go on?” “To the end, my dear” said Igor to Sergei. Of course the great composer is in his 80’s in these scenes, but the indomitable yet charming personality still comes across. Another indomitable personality, Pierre Boulez, is seen telling Stravinsky – twice - “what Le Sacre is really about”(!) Most touchingly, he returns to the very room in Clarens, Switzerland, where he wrote much of the score (at the end of the Rue du Sacre du Printemps, in case you wish to go there.) He even returns to the scene of the notorious première in Paris in 1913, the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, points out where he sat, recalling his reaction to the audience’s loud disapproval – “I said, ‘Go to Hell!’ and walked out through this door here” – and he walks through it, now stooped and old, once more. The tale of the première has been elaborated and distorted by Igor down the years, but it is still fun to hear it retold.
But this priceless old footage of the composer can be seen to better advantage, and at greater length, in Tony Palmer’s classic documentary about Stravinsky. There is some use in this Gergiev film of a 1970’s Joffrey Ballet production of Le Sacre, which used Nijinsky’s choreography and reconstructions of the original set and costume designs. But again, Gergiev has since done the same for a Mariinsky production he conducts on a superior BelAir blu-ray disc, coupled with a recreation of Massine’s original Firebird. The one element of this film which can’t be found elsewhere is its main subject, namely the relation of the conductor to the work itself. That has its strengths too, but the production overall, with its 4:3 ratio and no extras of any kind, has a dated feel now.