The centenary of the première of The Rite of Spring – now that is something to celebrate. The Philharmonia, led by chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, did it in style, with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy (who of course famously performed the Rite with Stravinsky on the piano), Amériques by Edgard Varèse (who was present at the première, and very much influenced by it), and a vital performance of the Rite itself.

Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

Some consider Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to be the start of modern music, and no matter your thoughts on that claim, it is indubitable that the Prélude was the beginning of something new in classical music. Its rich but strange orchestral colours and structure were unheard of, and even now it can sound extremely fresh and new. Unfortunately the Philharmonia’s performance of the Prélude was tame and missed some spark. The flute solo was played beautifully by Samuel Coles, but I couldn’t help but think that the Philharmonia were saving all their strength for the next two pieces, that certainly required immense dedication.

As soon as the orchestra commenced their performance of Amériques, any trace of the hesitation felt in the Prélude disappeared. The opening is similar to both Debussy and Stravinsky’s pieces, with an alto flute (played impressively by Rowland Sutherland) and two harps offering a sensitive and foreboding start. Varèse was inspired by his move to New York and in particular by the sounds of the city, which translated almost directly into Amériques, with sounds such as sirens (I would say the most effective use of a siren in all of classical music) and a lion’s roar depicting the chaos of the city.

Compared to other versions I have heard of Amériques, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia managed to enlarge the chaos and near pandemonium of the piece while still showing the absolutely musical brilliance of it. There was no unnecessary focus on melodies or rhythms that appear in the background, no reduction of the piece to something more clear-cut. What we heard was pure energy, and despite this performance being of the revised 1927 version, for a smaller orchestra than the original Amériques, it was raucous and – well, really very loud. But the loudness had a purpose and its contrast with the slower and quieter section in this orchestral work was expertly played out by the Philharmonia, creating an overwhelming effect. The numerous climaxes at the end of the work kept growing louder and louder, Salonen forced his orchestra to the edge of what is possible in a concert hall.

Amériques is an extraordinarily tough act to follow. Before the concert I had my concerns, thinking that Amériques is much better suited for the end of the concert, as even a piece like the Rite could only fall flat. Thankfully I was wrong, and the Philharmonia followed Esa-Pekka Salonen in a performance of The Rite of Spring that was as energetic and animalistic as Amériques, putting the two pieces on equal footing. Salonen is a seasoned Stravinsky conductor but there was nothing routine about this performance of the Rite.

When a performance of the Rite is as rowdy as tonight’s – while never being sloppy – it is not difficult to imagine that its première was indeed a riotous affair (even though of course the original riot was as much over the choreography as the music, if not more so). With a piece like this, that has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, it’s important for an orchestra and conductor to avoid complacency and really delve back into the original music with everything they have. This almost isn’t human music, it is nature and it’s animalistic and the effect of this interpretation is extremely powerful, and overwhelming. What a night, what a performance.

By programming it with the Prélude and Amériques two elements of the Rite were brought out: its melodies, that really do seem to tell a story, and its unbridled energy and drive. There is no competition between these three pieces of music, because they all deserve to be played on an evening like this. For all the importance of these works for the history of modern music, any intellectualizing or historical knowledge disappears when performances such as this evening’s of Amériques and The Rite of Spring are heard. Because even if these works had no historical significance, they would still be incredible pieces of art.