Next year, 2013, will see the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. It was premiered at the new Theatre des Champs-Elysées on 29th May 1913 as part of a programme that included Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor.
Performed by Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballet Russe, the choreography was by the great Vaslav Nijinsky and the costumes were designed by Nicholas Roerich. The conductor was the young Pierre Monteux who had, two years previously conducted the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. As most people will know, the first performance quickly descended into a near riot. It was not only the music that caused a protest but when the curtain rose parts of the audience considered the costumes and choreography to be laughable, one commentator describing the scene on stage as ‘... group of knock kneed and long braided Lolitas jumping up and down…’.
The problem was not helped by the fact that the standing room in the new theatre, occupied by a younger audience who supported all that was new and fashionable, was placed between the boxes and the stalls. This led to violent arguments between different factions, with accounts of people being pounded on the head by people sitting behind them and, in one instance, a well to do elderly woman standing up with her tiara askew, crying that in all her years she had never been so insulted. Whether this was by others in the audience or by the performance we do not know.
Such was the din that the dancers had difficultly hearing the music. When Stravinsky left the auditorium in disgust he found Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting numbers to his dancers in an attempt to keep them together.
Stravinsky later claimed that he had never expected such a reception to the new work. He went on to recall that, after the performance, whilst taking an evening walk, Diaghilev merely said, ’Just what I wanted.’ Nevertheless, at subsequent concert performances, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ was acclaimed as a masterpiece and its influence has been felt ever since.
To mark next year’s centenary, Decca www.deccaclassics.com have released a 4 CD box set containing no less than six performances of Le Sacre du Printemps drawn from Universal Music’s Decca and Deutsche Grammophon catalogue.
From May 1981 we have Antal Dorati conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the United Artists Auditorium, Detroit. Here we have superb recording, supremely detailed. There are biting strings and superb woodwind passages. Dorati doesn’t hang around, with tempo driven pretty fast when needed. In the quieter moments Dorati adopts a slower tempo bringing out all the poetry sometimes missed. He knows how to slowly build the tension in stages throughout the work. The lead up to the Sacrificial Dance is beautifully paced, culminating in a tremendous climax. Overall this is probably one of the finest Rites ever recorded.
Ricardo Chailly recorded Le Sacre in 1985 with The Cleveland Orchestra in the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio. There is a crisp, lighter weight to the playing. The recording is good, though not as vivid as Dorati’s. This is a superbly played, civilised performance with phenomenal orchestral control and ensemble. The strings and brass are beautifully played, but not riotous, raucous or in any way wild. This is a very enjoyable performance, if a little too polished, though it does build to a fine climax.
One might reasonably have expected a pretty cerebral performance of the Le Sacre from such a conductor as Pierre Boulez when he recorded it in 1991 with The Cleveland Orchestra in the same venue as Chailly. Yet Boulez knows how to build the excitement and tension well before climaxes. He also pushes the orchestra even more than Chailly, yet retains the same precision, with the orchestra really on their toes. There is unexpectedly thoughtful and mysterious playing in Cercles mystérieux des adolescents and, as Boulez proceeds towards the climax there is some biting playing. The climax is steady but ruthless.
I already knew Valery Gergiev’s 1999 performance with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra recorded at the Festspielhaus, Baden Baden, a recording that is full and detailed. There are some wonderfully distinctive woodwind timbres from the Mariinsky orchestra. The more dramatic dynamics contrasts build up tremendously with some really fiery moments as the work progresses. The sudden violent outbursts that erupt, such as in Rondes printanières and Cortège du sage, are tremendous. In the Introduction to Le Sacrifice, Gergiev creates some wonderful orchestral textures. He certainly makes the most of dynamic contrasts and there is a longer than usual pause before the final bars.
The latest recording in this set is from 2006 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from the Disney Hall, Los Angeles. The recording here is good in many ways with plenty of detail but spoilt somewhat by a slight boominess in the bass. There is polished playing from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in this well-paced performance. Perhaps at times the performance is a little too precise and neat. Where the climaxes come they sound a little contrived. But it does build to a pretty good climax.
I found listening to these six performances of Le Sacre du Printemps over two days an engrossing and enjoyable task. There are some fine performances here and a couple of great ones.
So which was my preferred recording from the set? That accolade must go to Antal Dorati who provides everything you could want in a performance with great sound to match. I wouldn’t want to be without Pierre Monteux’s version that gives insights that link us to the first performance conducted by him nearly 100 years ago. Gergiev’s dramatic performance is one I would not wish to be without as is Pierre Boulez’ fine performance which brings so much biting tension. That isn’t to say that the remaining performances here are in any way below par, it is simply that there are four outstanding performances that stand head and shoulders over them.
The fourth disc in this set is an audio documentary about Le Sacre du Printemps, narrated by Jon Tolansky, giving a fascinating insight into the work; its history, music, choreography and performance, with extracts from Gergiev’s recording and contributions from many artists including Dame Marie Rambert, who danced at the original performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, Dame Monica Mason, who danced in the 1962 Royal Ballet production of the work and went on to become Director of the Royal Ballet, conductors Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev, Deborah Bull, who danced in a reconstructed performing version of Le Sacre at Rome opera in 2001 and later became Creative Director at the Royal Ballet and Bernard Keeffe who worked with Stravinsky.
Decca have done a great service bringing all these performances together for the centenary. If you haven’t already got these recordings then snap them up now in a box that will bring much enjoyment.
If this set isn’t enough for you then you may be tempted with Decca’s other centenary set of 20 CDs featuring all 38 recordings from the catalogue of Decca,
Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, from 1946 to 2010. There are performances from Van Beinum, Ansermet, Fricsay, Dorati, Karajan, Colin Davis, Mehta, Tilson Thomas, Haitink, Solti, Rattle, Ozawa, Dutoit and Bernstein to name but a few. There is also a piano duet version of Le Sacre du Printemps from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andrei Gavrilov.