The première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was a roaring success, literally. There was such commotion among the audience that the dancers could hardly hear the music, despite the determined effort of conductor Pierre Monteaux to keep going. Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, had to shout instructions from the wings to keep the dancers on track, with the composer hanging on to his coattails lest he fall onto the stage.

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra © Keith Hiro / HK Phil
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
© Keith Hiro / HK Phil

A hundred years on, the work no longer incites such wild emotions among audiences, and prevalent thinking is that the pandemonium at the première was reaction to the dancing more than the music. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Rite polarised opinions and ushered in a new era of composition, paving the way for the flowering of further breakthroughs in subsequent decades.

The final instalment in the early trio of ballets Stravinsky wrote for impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – the others being The Firebird and Petrushka – the Rite is not a folk tale, although parts of it are based on folk-songs from the depths of rural Russia, the most recognisable of which is the solo bassoon melody that opens the work.

The two parts of the work, “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice”, trace the progress of primitive rituals by pagan tribes offering up one of their own to appease petulant deities. Imbued with feral vigour and naked brutality, the work not only stretches instrumental limits but also confers unusual roles on more humble parts of the orchestra. Where else do we see the bass drum take centre stage, for example?

Beyond the opening interplay among the woodwinds, the Rite is a rhythmic rollercoaster carrying melodic fragments, replete with relentless chugging (“The Augurs of Spring”), slow climbs (“Mystic Circles of the Young Girls”), heart-stopping plunges (“Glorification of the Chosen One”) and nauseating spirals (“Ritual of the Rival Tribes”), that crashes violently into the final chord depicting the death of the sacrificial virgin dancing herself to destruction.

The irregular rhythms and fiendishly rapid succession of time changes have fazed even some of the best conductors. Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony for a quarter of a century, had Nicolas Slonimsky re-bar parts of the “Sacrificial Dance” to make it easier to beat time at a steady tempo. This didn’t seem to be a problem for Oleg Caetani, who braved the challenges with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday without a score.

Although the opening bassoon solo was faltering and unsteady, the rest of the orchestra took up the gauntlet enthusiastically and endured fire and brimstone to bring out the fine details of Stravinsky’s orchestration. Teams of instruments sometimes browbeat us with the same ideas, and sometimes nimbly changed positions to lure us into comfort, only to jolt us rudely out of the stupor. The frenetic energy was electrifying; the air was steamy with vitality.

According to an article in the Guardian earlier this year, a good performance of The Rite will merely “pulverise you”, but a great performance “will make you feel that it’s you – that it’s all of us – being sacrificed by Stravinsky’s spellbinding and savagely cruel music”. By this measure, we got off by the skin of our teeth on Saturday.

The first half of the evening’s programme featured Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D, “Paris” and Les Sylphides by Chopin. Like Stravinsky with the Rite, Mozart broke new ground with the “Paris” symphony. Pandering to the tastes of the French public, he limited the number of movements to three, but used the largest orchestra until then and brought in the clarinet for the first time. In a graceful and elegant tone, the Hong Kong Philharmonic painstakingly peeled off layer upon layer of the work’s architecture, sounding a little muddy only at the start of the final movement.

Les Sylphides, the ballet music based on orchestral adaptations of piano pieces by Chopin, also preceded The Rite of Spring on its first night. Stravinsky’s orchestration of the Nocturne in A flat, Op. 32 no. 2 and Grande Valse Brilliante in E flat, Op. 18 bookended waltzes and mazurkas adapted by Roy Douglas and Glazunov. Even here, Stravinsky’s hand showed their promise, giving the woodwinds some seductive lines. Caetani’s rippling rhythmic pulse lunged forward with stops and starts, all the while maintaining majestic and elegant poise but never losing lyricism.

By the end of the evening the orchestra looked exhausted, but they knew it had been all worthwhile when, unlike the audience a century earlier, we showered them with rapturous applause rather than raucous heckling.