The prospect of writing about one of the world’s greatest orchestras, conducted by one of the world’s greatest conductors, playing one of the world’s most revolutionary pieces of music left me excited, if not a little daunted. So much ink has been spilled over Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring since its riotous première 99 years ago that commenting on this seminal work, interpreted by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, seemed no mean feat. Little did I know that I’d struggle far more with Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, composed 14 years later in an idiosyncratic mish-mash of neoclassical styles. Fortunately, the performers didn’t seem to share my apprehension or difficulties; and their performance indicated that they did share my excitement.
Upon hearing the instantly recognisable opening of The Rite of Spring, its extraordinary nature is revealed in all its bizarre glory. Principal bassoonist Rachel Gough’s opening solo certainly augured an exceptional performance. Gough took her time and articulated this phrase – which carries the weight of having changed musical history for ever – absolutely exquisitely, retaining a levity befitting its evocation of spring despite its stratospheric pitch. This musical freshness spread like the rising sun’s rays across the wind section, whose vibrato-less, reedy voices Stravinsky favoured for their inhumanness. This instrumental decision was revolutionary, as was the opening’s bitonal harmonic scheme, which superimposes similar melodies a semitone apart. The same technique produces at times crushing, crashing passages that leave the listener squirming (but simultaneously rejoicing wildly) in genuine physical discomfort; at times mystical lyrical passages based on folk tunes that conjure up a mysterious soundworld of the primitive Russian landscapes of the ballet’s scenario.
Of course, this concert performance was without the dancers, costumes, choreography and set design so central to the original Ballets Russes production; certainly, with two-thirds of the Gesamtkunstwerk missing, it is a different beast altogether. However, Gergiev’s interpretation really emphasised the work’s remarkable heterophonous textures, in which the same folksongs – slightly altered – are layered and layered again. The rhythmic and harmonic complexities that emerge are what endows The Rite with its visceral power and immense tension; Gergiev managed to exploit these, even conducting as he did with a toothpick.
However, I did feel that in some of the more riotous sections, the orchestra’s energy was slightly underwhelming, and that the maestro could have unleashed a little more anarchic wildness to contrast with the exquisitely intense long sections of stasis. It was an interpretation that distanced itself somewhat from the happenings of that crazy night in 1913, and posed the question: do we perhaps mix up the music with its reception? Do we lose The Rite in the riot?
Oedipus Rex followed. Stravinsky teamed up with Jean Cocteau for this representation of Sophocles’ gorily tragic tale, the French 20th-century renaissance man providing the text, which was subsequently translated into Latin as a distancing device. The concert organisers provided us with further distancing by placing the five vocal soloists behind the huge orchestra, jammed in a corner at the back of the stage: a strange choice which certainly contributed to my own rather cold reception of the work. Not that the soloists couldn’t be heard; they boasted rich, powerful voices, particularly Zlata Bulycheva as cocky Jocasta (Oedipus’ mother/wife) and Alexei Tanovitski as Tiresias (the prophet of Thebes). But Stravinsky’s neoclassical writing doesn’t leave much room for vocal expression; the opera’s characters are like marble statues, whose horrific situations are barely represented in their stone-faced, expressionless parts.
The music starts dramatically enough with a discordant orchestral flourish that launches straight into a chorus, sung by the Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus. The gents were the highlight of the performance, singing their Requiem-esque Latin choruses with a drama that was elsewhere lacking. Having said this, Simon Callow, who was playing the part of the narrator (from the front of the stage), injected plenty of theatrical energy into his plot summaries, which, though they do rather give the game away, are a vital addition to the performance for all non-classicists, as the music itself is often seemingly unrelated to the dramatic events taking place.
As for the orchestra, they performed Stravinsky’s ‘Merzbild’ score – a Dadaist term meaning ‘made out of junk’ – very accomplishedly, but their fragmented, constantly contrasting jumble of lines and styles failed to communicate anything near the same profundity of musical feeling as in the first half. Of course, this is sort of the point; furthermore, Stravinsky’s style underwent immense change in the years between the two pieces; but the twenty-minute interval was not enough to prepare me for such a transformation.
Gergiev’s Stravinsky series with the LSO provides listeners with an excellent opportunity to hear the composer’s best-loved works alongside the lesser known – I’m afraid that I only discovered The Rite’s right to popularity, and that Oedipus’s obscurity is not necessarily wrong.