In the first concert of their exciting series Stravinsky: Myth and Ritual celebrating the varied musical inspirations of this most iconic figure of 20th-century composers, the focus was on Rituals – and what a thrilling way to open this important retrospective. Over the past few decades performances of Stravinsky’s music have declined, with only the three early ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring appearing regularly in orchestra programmes. In this series of concerts the Philharmonia is performing a wide range of his most original works, many of which that now rarely get an outing.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

The first part of this concert was a case in point. How often do you hear the once hugely influential Symphonies of Wind Instruments or his 1950s ballet Agon? In this performance the two works, separated by over 30 years, were merged into one with the interesting effect of showing how consistent Stravinsky remained in his approach to harmony, rhythm and orchestration. The beautifully sculpted discords in the Symphonies of Wind Instrument were wonderfully brought to life here, with Esa-Pekka Salonen insisting on a finely tuned balancing of timbres and razor sharp rhythms. You could almost picture Stravinsky picking out the acid chords on his rickety piano.

Towards the end of the piece, dancers appeared in the wings of the stage and as the music merged seamlessly into the music for Agon they then emerged onto a stage above the orchestra. And what a good idea it was to have this piece danced, so immersed was the composer in the spirit of dance by this time in his career that the music becomes almost subservient to it and can seem a little dull on its own. Choreographed by Karole Armitage and danced by her group, Armitage Gone! Dancethe abstract movements and forms were sensitively presented. The music was shaped with ideal rhythmic precision, its final dances, written a few years later using the twelve tone technique being particularly vibrant.

But the star of the show was their performance of the very familiar The Rite of Spring. This apocalyptic masterpiece certainly captures the overripe and destructive atmosphere of 1913 Europe with a vengeance. It is also the most personal and unbuttoned of all Stravinsky’s works. Later in life he was perhaps embarrassed by this most full blooded Russian work, as he distanced himself from his 'Russian' period generally in favour of the urbane wandering cosmopolitanism personna he adopted. None of those raw emotions were suppressed in this performance. The precision that worked so well in the performance of Agon was again in evidence and produced a devastatingly efficient slaughter. Every department excelled and full mark to Salonen for maintaining the tension till the bitter end. Particular mention to timpanists whose dominant presence above the orchestra punctuated the whole performance.  This was an account with a freshness and energy that I’ll not forget in a hurry.