Though more than a century of musical change has passed since its infamously near-riotous debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, The Rite of Spring remains a formidable challenge for any conductor. “I remember the first time I conducted the ‘Rite’ more than half a century ago,” the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos told The Los Angeles Times in 2013, the year of the pagan ballet and orchestral work’s centenary. “I needed two weeks to prepare it. This piece, no matter how many times you have performed it, is a monster who can eat you in one moment. There are so many places that are dangerous. This will never be a normal piece.”
Seiji Ozawa, who has recorded The Rite of Spring with the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras, knows that full well. In Absolutely on Music, his book of conversations with novelist Haruki Murakami, he addresses the “fiasco” of that very first performance: “The piece itself is partly to blame, but it could well be that the orchestra wasn’t fully prepared to perform it. The piece is full of musical acrobatics. I wish I had asked Pierre Monteux about it directly. We were very close for a while.” He means the conductor of The Rite of Spring‘s debut, who went on to record it in 1929, just as soon as electronic microphones made it possible to do so.
So, however, did Stravinsky himself, whose own 1929 recording with the Walther Straram Concerts Orchestra, performing again in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, you can hear at the top of the post. But this record, as Peter Gutmann writes at Classicalnotes.net, is “not by the composer of the Rite. No, I haven’t uncovered a fraud. It’s indeed Stravinsky who wields the baton, but in the 16 years since the premiere he had undergone a vast change of artistic personality. No longer the wild firebrand who had scandalized musical society, he had converted to neoclassicism, and that’s just the type of reading he leads here – dispassionate, manicured and reticent, with the final sacrificial dance downright labored.” You can compare Stravinsky’s first recording to Monteux’s first recording, with the Grand Orchestre Symphonique, just below.
That 1929 record hardly marked the end of Monteux’s relationship with the piece: “When Stravinsky first played him the music for The Rite, Monteux had to go and sit down in another room, concluding that he would stick to conducting Brahms,” writes WQXR’s Phil Kline. But after first conducting it, he worked with the composer on score touch-ups and became the leading proponent of The Rite as a concert work,” ultimately recording it not just once but four times. Recent generations, of course, have mostly come to know The Rite of Spring through Leopold Stokowski’s version in Disney’s Fantasia, a rendition Stravinsky called “execrable.” But if the sheer, brutal-seeming unconventionality of the piece shocked its Parisian audience in 1913, we in the 21st century, listening to the many interpretations that have come out in the past 89 years, might well find ourselves startled at how many possibilities The Rite of Spring still contains.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.