The amount of attention Igor Stravinsky’s iconoclastic ballet score The Rite of Spring has received this year – its 100th – has been enormous, perhaps even excessive. Countless important works, after all, routinely have anniversaries to celebrate, and very few are lucky enough to receive much particular attention. On Bachtrack alone, the year has seen nine concert reviews of the Rite so far. The reason all of these performances have yet to get dull, of course, is that The Rite of Spring is a composition which always seems fresh, even to modern ears. Something about this piece, 100 years old though it is, continues to sound viciously contemporary.

François-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siècles at the BBC Proms 2013 © BBC / Sisi Burn
François-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siècles at the BBC Proms 2013
© BBC / Sisi Burn

Logically, then, it is surely one of the least likely candidates imaginable for the period-instrument treatment. If it still sounds so contemporary in its customary form, why does it need a makeover with instruments specific to the time and place of its first performance?

I can’t claim an answer to this question by any means. All I know is that the results of this bizarre experiment obtained by François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles, making their BBC Proms debut in this concert, are totally thrilling.

As it happens, Roth and his band take historically-informed practice a full step further than merely using period instruments. Tonight, they also used a specially prepared copy of the score, designed to be as close as possible to that played at the famous, riot-inducing 1913 première. The differences are apparently mostly nuances of orchestration – more switching between pizzicato and bowed string playing in the closing stretches, for instance. But in this performance these details combined with the wildly distinctive timbres of the 1913-style instruments to create a rendition of this well-known piece which sounded like absolutely no other that I, or I suspect anybody who isn’t about 120, have ever heard.

Nothing about it was normal. The opening section for woodwinds became a strange chorus of birds, the polyphony somehow sounding denser and wilder than usual. The brass became one huge percussion instrument, with the instruments’ thinner tone giving a harsher effect. The French horns’ music became an essay in cruelty, with their wild leaps and piercing high notes audibly difficult on these instruments even in the hands of these impeccable players. The contrabassoon became a giant, hideous bee. Part Two of the whole thing, mostly taken considerably slower than the norm, became a single, hypnotic, monolithic block, punctuated by huge silences. The effect was dizzying, messy.

We’re used to hearing stories about The Rite of Spring as a beginning in musical history – and certainly, it opened a lot of doors; its influence has been as wide-reaching as perhaps any other early 20th-century work. (Though for my money, Pierrot Lunaire’s centenary in 2012 was woefully undercelebrated, by comparison at least.) But in this concert, the Rite was an ending: the conclusion of a brief history of around 250 years of French ballet music, and the first half had been devoted to exploring more of this history.

Proceedings began with some cheery, quintessentially French dances extracted from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Le bourgeois gentillhome (1670), and following that were some equally pleasant dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (1935). All were meticulously presented, naturally on French Baroque-style instruments, with some fantastically delicate sounds produced from all quarters of the orchestra. I was amazed to see four bassoons among the orchestral forces, but Les Siècles have won my trust and I’m willing to believe that this is historically realistic. Roth even kept time with a historically-informed baton: a serious-looking contraption several feet in length, which, instead of waving in the air, he beat on his podium in time with the pulse.

After yet another change of instruments, the ensuing late 19th-century music – from Delibes’ Coppélia (1870) and Massenet’s Le Cid (1885) – was just as convincing. Most distinctive in this particular orchestral sound were the wooden flutes, which produced a clear, shiny tone high in the range: a duet for solo flute and cor anglais in the Massenet was a particular highlight. Roth conducted with vigour once again, finding a bouncy but slightly machine-like style in the Delibes (it’s about a mechanical doll, after all) and relishing in the exotica of the Massenet. The versatility of this orchestra is just incredible.

And then we had the Rite, sweeping all before it as it is wont to do. Where could French ballet music possibly go after that? In a sense, this programme emphasised the piece’s violence even more: it seemed to kill French ballet music off, perhaps to sacrifice this distinguished tradition to the grim gods of the 20th century. The Rite may still sound fresh in whatever form it’s played, but it’s also part of history now. What a treat to hear this history brought to life.