Whatever Became of Le Sacre du Printemps?

I was at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, tonight for the New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Daniel Harding, with Joshua Bell as soloist for Peter I. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.  The concert began with the very brief "Flourish with Fireworks" by Oliver Knussen, and concluded with Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the early 20th century ballet that revolutionized music and for many marks the beginning of the "modern" era.

Le Sacre should be the main event on any concert that includes it, but time has faded its shock value and the level of orchestral virtuosity has risen so far since 1913 that it has become quite difficult for an orchestra of the top rank — such as the NY Philharmonic — to produce a performance that does not suffer from some routine and excessive comfort.  And that was the case tonight, but more on that anon.

First, the Knussen, a trifle written for Michael Tilson Thomas's opening concert as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra back in 1988.  It is a trifle, but a charming one.  Inspired by Igor Stravinsky's "Fireworks" and thus thematically linked to the balance of this program, the piece makes a quick, colorful flash, says its thing, and then exits the stage.  It was tossed off with aplomb by conductor and orchestra, and then it was gone…

The NY Philharmonic's publicity department knows where its bread is buttered.  Their promotion of this concert emphasized Joshua Bell and Tchaikovsky, not Stravinsky.  And with good reason, because Bell is at the top of his game and gave us a very satisfying performance of this concerto.  He really throws himself into a piece physically, moving about, sweating a bundle, and channeling the music.  I think Tchaikovsky misjudged in the first movement, creating an overextended, repetitious piece, but the second and third movements are just about perfect in length and affect, and Harding and the orchestra were at one with Bell for a sumptuous Canzonetta and a thrilling finale that was truly, as directed, Allegro vivacissimo.

But the Stravinsky!  Just from hearing the opening bassoon solo, stretched out just a bit too long, I could tell that this performance would lack some of the necessary electricity.  This is a super-virtuoso orchestra and Harding is technically a superbly equipped conductor for whom this music is a part of his cultural heritage.  And perhaps that's the problem.  When even top orchestras were on the edge of their seats and had to struggle a bit to get through this piece, it generated a lot more excitement.  The concluding Sacrifical Dance of the Chosen One has to be really savage, gripping, but here it sounded too much like arithmetic and not enough like a dance to the death.  In addition, I thought instrumental balances were seriously askew at some points, with subsidiary chords drowning out the main line of the music.  The concluding section of the first part, the Dance of the Earth, was actually thrilling, but then part two, which should start with intense mystery, struck me as flat, and the buildup to the big explosion did not generate the necessary tension.

Perhaps I'm just jaded by knowing Le Sacre too well.  By coincidence I heard Benjamin Zander's concert recording with his Boston Philharmonic just a few days ago, and it was thrilling, so I don't think so.  I can still be thrilled by Le Sacre, but tonight I wasn't.

4 thoughts on “Whatever Became of Le Sacre du Printemps?

  1. I heard the concert last night (Friday) with some friends. Two of our group were moved to tears by the Tchaikovsky, but a third (a serious violinist) was critical of Joshua Bell’s attacking of the notes even tough she enjoyed the performance. I thought Harding and The Orchestra did a near miraculous job in tailoring their accompaniment to Bell’s playing.
    I agree with you that I have heard more thrilling Rite of Springs (Bernstein’s early one on Sony or Markevitch come to mind), but I have never noticed so many moments of beauty (and look-backs to the 19th Century) in a performance. Also, at least on Friday, Harding was able to summon power and savagery when called for. (The orchestra was simply superb.)

  2. Professor Leonard, I agree substantially with your evaluation of that concert. I was there on Friday evening as well but my quibble with you was with the Oliver Knussen piece. In my opinion, it was a waste of time. I know it was only about 3-5 minutes long, but I feel that’s 3-5 minutes I’ve lost from my life and the Philharmonic owes me back. IMHO, Knussen’s piece was just not worth including on the program.
    Joshua Bell’s performance on the other hand was a not-to-be-missed one. He is amazing-he always is-and I don’t remember ever hearing the second movement performed with such tenderness. The last movement was emotion combined with technical assuredness not easily found anywhere else.
    As for the Rite of Spring, Harding and the NYPhil played it as more of a morris dance rather than a savage, pagan ritual dance. So your comment about “missing the point of the music” is very appropriate. For the record, my personal favorite performance of the Rite was by Zubin Mehta and the NY Phil back in the 1980s. They performed that work with such energy and savagery that the ceiling of Avery Fisher rose upward about a foot higher than it had been before the concert.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Diggs. I thought the Knussen was a trifle, here and gone, and not pretending to be anything other than a flashy, fanfare sort of thing. I wouldn’t begrudge the NYP the few minutes it took to hear it, but I would certainly agree it didn’t add much of anything to the concert. But please don’t write Knussen off entirely based on this. I’ve heard some things by him that I found very worthwhile, including his opera “Where the Wild Things Are” and a fascinating Horn Concerto.
    As to Le Sacre, I had posted on my facebook page that I thought the performance missed the spirit, and some friends who attended later performances commented about the “beauty” of the performance – to which I responded that this misses the point of the music, which is supposed to be depicting pagan rites of pre-literate people. Of course there are some moments of beauty, but that’s not the point.
    Mehta certainly did produce some wonderful performances of Le Sacre. I first came to enjoy the piece through the early recording by Pierre Boulez with a French radio orchestra that was issued in the U.S. on a Nonesuch LP in the 1960s. (Luckily, it was reissued on CD at some point on a French label and I was able to snag a copy – only briefly available as an import in the U.S.)
    There are moments that should really send a shiver down your spine, and they do on that old Boulez recording. Another conductor who understood what Le Sacre is all about was Antal Dorati, in his Detroit Symphony recording for Decca. The old Bernstein recording, preferably the NY Phil, was also terrific (although Stravinsky reportedly said “Wow” meaning to be sarcastic after hearing a Bernstein performance of Le Sacre). Stravinsky’s own recordings had the spirit but not the technical polish, IMHO.

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