years I've developed a hearty dislike of "historically informed"
performances. So when I was asked to review an HIP recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, my reaction was entirely kneejerk: you've
got to be kidding! What could a "historically informed" performance of this
familiar, oft-recorded masterpiece possibly teach us that we didn't already
Well, quite a lot, actually. Francois-Xavier Roth
has set out to recreate the work's premiere performance as it was first heard
on May 29th, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees; and the version
he's come up with turns out to be surprisingly, radically different from the
one we're used to hearing today. Unlike Petrushka,
a piece that was revised only once in its history (in 1947, mostly to retain the
copyright), The Rite of Spring has
undergone almost constant revision between 1913 and 1967, when the definitive
performing version was published by Boosey and Hawes. Like a dutiful scholar,
and with the help of several experts in the field, Roth has traced the work back
to its origins, the composer's autographed manuscript that was used for the
premiere. Those who have come to take The
Rite of Spring for granted have many startling discoveries awaiting
them. For one thing, almost all of the instruments used at that premiere have
since undergone improvements, mostly to make them easier to play. Of
course, those mechanical adjustments have also altered the sound production of
said instruments. The winds, brass, and catgut strings have a darker resonance
than one hears in modern performances of these works. The strangeness of the
sound world created by those "original instruments" is one of the delights
of the recording.
The one thing that a performance of The Rite of Spring must never be is routine, but as the music has become more technically manageable, that's exactly what we get most of the time. Well, here is a performance that's anything but routine. Roth has stripped the score of its rust and familiarity, restored the sense of risk and danger, and forced us to listen to it with fresh ears, as if for the first time. His Rite of Spring is everything a great performance of this work needs to be: a descent into an elemental mystery, a fever-dream that's seductive and violent in equal measure. Miraculously, he conjures up not just what the music sounded like on that first night; he invites us to imagine how that first audience must have experienced it. The shock that's missing from most performances these days is very much an essential part of this one.
The recording captures a live performance, and the sound is a little rough around the edges; but in this music at least, that only adds to the atmospherics. I'm certainly willing to trade the false perfection of the studio for the excitement of a live occasion. This performance now joins Chially/Cleveland, Gergiev/Kirov, Markevitch/Philharmonia as the standard-bearers for this score. If The Rite of Spring is important to you, then you absolutely must hear this recording. And by the way, the Petrushka is every bit as successful, and for all the same reasons.