On Thursday 16 July the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played Igor Stravinsky’s great work The Rite of Spring under the baton of Ilan Volkov, Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since 2003.
I have to confess to having been rather disappointed in this performance of a work that I have known and loved since I first heard Igor Markevitch’s great 1959 stereo recording of it in 1961. I was so taken with it way back then that I purchased a copy of the score to see what makes it tick, and it is quite something.
It is a massive and complex work, for a large orchestra, and successful performance requires not only conducting skills of the highest order, but a great deal of study, maturity and rehearsal, all of which I felt were lacking. The great Pierre Monteux had 16 rehearsals to prepare for the initial performance in Paris in 1913, and he had to work long and hard with the musicians of the Théâtre de Champs Elysées in order to master the music’s rhythmical complexities.
Stravinsky was a great musical innovator and a very accomplished conductor, so the complexities abound, and the art of a successful performance is to tame them so that one hears the music rather than its technical content. The first four bars are by turn written in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 2/4, marked lento, tempo rubato. Then we have two bars of 3/4 marked poco acclerando, and a 2/4, 3/4, 2/4 sequence marked in tempo, and on it goes. By the time we get to Figure 41 of the score we strike tempo markings like 9/8(4/8+5/8), and further on there are rapid transitions from 3/16 to 5/16 and back again. Within that framework there are complex handovers between different wind instruments within a single phrase.
Also, there is a great deal of brass in the orchestra prescribed by Stravinsky, and while it is there for a reason it needs to be kept under firm control to avoid it drowning out the strings, which I am sure Stravinsky intended the audience to hear.
Being Stravinsky’s musical evocation of a vision of “wise elders, seated in a circle watching a young girl dance herself to death ... to propitiate the god of spring”, Le Sacre du Printemps has a dark, sinister and mysterious atmosphere, and drawing that in an integrated way out of the complexities of the music is quite an art. It is written in two Parts – “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice”, each of which is divided into a number of scenes. These scenes run directly from one to the next. Markevitch manages to sustain the tension and the sinister atmosphere through each of these transitions (as of course does Stravinsky himself in his great Sony recording), so that each Part comes across as a seamless piece of music with a clear inner logic, but then Markevitch had had his head around the work for years, having first recorded it in 1951 – and having had a very successful career as a composer in the pre-war years.
Gianluigi Gelmetti also managed to hold it all together in a fine performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House in 2004. Volkov’s reading came across as rather episodic and disjointed, so that although there were some fine passages, and some great playing by the musicians of a very good orchestra, it just didn’t hang together somehow.
My concerns about under-rehearsal are not assuaged in any way by the knowledge that within a week Volkov will be conducting the MSO in several performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. This again is a massive and complex work, the final completed statement by one of the greatest conductors that ever lived, very demanding upon the conductor’s technical and interpretive skills, and not one to be tackled lightly. Volkov certainly does not lack self-confidence.
The other major work on the 16 July program was the Australian premiere of English composer Fraser Trainer’s for the living – Concerto for amplified violin and orchestra, with Victoria Mullova as the soloist. This is an interesting work, which would probably repay some careful listening. It deserves to be judged on its own merits, but Trainer set a rather high and silly benchmark for himself when in some introductory remarks he declared himself to be a man who is happy to leave the nineteenth century behind. Mullova is a fine violinist and while I found Trainer’s work interesting I have to confess that I did not find myself sitting there thanking the Lord that we were not having to hear her play the Brahms (which she played in Sydney, and will play in Copenhagen in August), or the Mozart Third and Fourth (which she will play in Steinfurt and Cologne in early September), or the Beethoven (which she will play in Bonn and Lucerne in the second half of September).
The other work on the program was Leoš Janáček’s tone poem The Fiddler’s Child, a fine work by this under-rated Czech composer, one which was new to me, but very enjoyable on a first hearing.