If I had the use of the TARDIS for one night, I'd head for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, May 29th 1913 – scene of the première of Stravinsky's, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Apart from a strong desire to witness this historic moment in European cultural history, I'd be keen to show those tempted to loosen seats from their moorings in outrage, a photo of the 2,000 beaming faces at the end of the Philharmonia Orchestra's concert in Edinburgh's unthreatened Usher Hall. Even those in the front of the organ stalls whose positioning, centimetres from the percussion sextet must have amounted to an appointment with tinnitus, looked thrilled. Ninety-eight years after its première, this work continues to electrify and, right from the bassoon's willowy introduction, transports us from our supermarket age to one where Slavic springtime rituals acknowledged, viscerally, adoration of, and dependence on the Earth. This was on outstanding performance which, despite the onset of Autumn, certainly achieved the title's aspirations of renewal for all present.

© Richard Haughton
© Richard Haughton

I have loved this piece ever since first hearing it as a teenager; yet something new emerges every time I go to a live performance. Sometimes these are interpretative features, such as Salonen's slow hand in the Rondes Printanières (Spring Rounds) emphasising the section's growth and climax. Or it might be the eye assisting the ear, when noting two horn players swapping their instruments for Wagner Tubas in the Jeux des Cités Rivales (Ritual of the Rival Tribes), or seeing an offbeat, solo cello ostinato in the Introduction to L'Adoration de la Terre (The Adoration of the Earth). On yet other occasions it is simply the location of the seat affecting perceived orchestral balance. This prompted me to wonder whether students of orchestration and acoustics, respectively, ever have the opportunity to move round a concert hall together while an orchestra repeatedly plays the same passage in the same way. The idea of classical music's written notes guaranteeing carbon copy performances, irrespective of listener location has never seemed less plausible than after such considerations. Not long after these deliberations, I discovered that none other than Salonen himself conceived a project where listeners could perceive the music from inside the orchestra – either as conductor or player. You can explore the history of RE-RITE here and experiment with a virtual mixing desk to arrive at a better understanding of each section's contribution to the whole.

The quality of EIF programme notes has been very impressive this year. This particular edition featured Picasso's 1920 sketch of Stravinsky and a photograph featuring Diaghilev amongst a quartet of dancers in The Rite. In yet another excellent note by Calum MacDonald, the emphasis was as much on what not to listen for in Stravinsky's master-work. He stressed the “anti-symphonic methods” in the writing and highlighted the idea of contrasting blocks of music. This non-organic approach, coupled with the sustained trills between some neighbouring sections, lent the transitions the sensation of standing on a ledge.

A similar claim of non-development was made, in the programme note by Andrew Huth, of the opening work in the programme, Scriabin's Le Poème de l'extase Op. 54 (The Poem of Ecstasy), composed between 1905 and 1908. The mellifluous harmonic language of this highly individualistic, synaesthetic composer doesn't easily lend itself to clearly signposted, large-scale, developmental purpose. This, coupled with beautiful orchestration, results in a sound world whose effect is reminiscent of light upon water. However, these are not always calm waters and the dynamic range of this piece is huge – never better exemplified than than by the six-fold trumpet section's rallying towards the work's explosive conclusion.

It always seems a bonus when an unknown work turns out to be the sort of gem which demands further hearing. In Shéhérazade, Ravel set three poems by his friend Léon Leclère who, perhaps prompted by his poet's ear, opted for the more uniformly trochaic pseudonym of Tristan Klingsor. In this performance, the Philharmonia Orchestra were joined by mezzo-soprano, Kelley O'Connor, who recently gave a wonderful performance of Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs on the same stage. As Roger Nichols points out in his poetically economic programme note, “all three songs begin and end in their original keys at a dynamic level of piano or less.” Ms O'Connor, in sympathy with this environment, delivered a beautifully phrased, calm and yet emotionally engaged rendition. I was struck too by the wonderful orchestration, which can seem like a given in Ravel. Exploring Shéhérazade further, I have since heard the version with piano accompaniment and mused that, were I a composer, I too would create piano versions of many works so that, through contrast, the orchestration might seem less like a given and more like the art that it is. In this piece, as in all the works in this captivating programme, it was clear that Salonen had great expressive rapport with this fine orchestra, whether communicating the tender or the savage.