It has been impossible to miss the centenary this year of the first performance of The Rite of Spring. There have been essays, television documentaries and a facsimile of Stravinsky’s autograph score, and ballet companies have brought forward everything from a revival of the original choreography to celebrated reinventions by Nijinsky, Béjart, Martha Graham and Pina Bausch, and all manner of new stagings.
The day itself – the premiere was given at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on 29 May 1913 – was marked with events around the world and, just 24 hours late, London caught up with this concert performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The supporting programme was well chosen. In only three works, lasting under two hours, here was The Rite of Spring, before and after. It is easy to hear the French influence on Stravinsky in the impressionist colouring of the introduction to Part Two of The Rite and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune shows where he found it. Salonen’s performance was cool, precise, not inclined to hot-house sensuality, which was probably as Stravinsky would have preferred.
Sometimes it feels as if all roads in 20th-century music lead back to The Rite. As the single example of where music went from there, Salonen chose Varèse’s Amériques. Obvious echoes of the Stravinsky bounce back and forth through the melée, but Varèse’s wild, 26-minute ride through the streets of New York, with sirens wailing, fog horns booming, construction sites hammering, shows how Stravinsky unknowingly opened the door to new ideas of music as pure sound.
Then, finally, to The Rite itself. For at least 20 years Salonen has been giving scorching performances of this 20th-century classic and his latest was no exception. Some untidy slips apart, the music was held in an iron grip and the rhythms pounded along at a headlong pace, quite a bit faster than Stravinsky himself ever conducted the piece (the composer might have had words about that). But for sheer adrenaline, pagan fire and modernist brilliance, Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra played a Rite of Spring that sounded as if the music has not aged a day.