Getting it Rite

Jeremy Pound enjoys a superb performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Manchester

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Juanjo MenaFavourite Stravinsky Rite of Spring on disc? I’ll go for the composer’s own recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra from 1960, the first that I ever got to know, and a performance whose raw, elemental power still lifts it, for me at least, above the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Valery Gergiev, Iv├ín Fischer and, most recently, Sir Simon Rattle. (Not, I should add, that I’d want to be without any of those either.)

Picking my favourite Rite in concert is a harder matter, though. I’ve also heard a good few Rite of Springs in concert over the years, and still find my ears pricking up at the very sight of the work on a season’s programme brochure – it’s a piece that can thrill in the concert hall like no other. My enjoyably varied experiences have ranged from a memorably rowdy student affair that nearly shattered the windows of the Bath Assembly Room – a charming venue, but more suited to staging string quartets than enormous orchestras complete with bass drum, tam tam and two sets of timps – to Michael Tilson Thomas’s altogether more restrained but mystery-filled performance with the San Francisco Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2000.

And now, as the work itself approaches the 100th anniversary of its historically riotous premiere, my own list of memorable Rites is joined by one more. Thursday’s (9 May) performance from the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena (pictured) was as brutal in its sheer force and yet as meticulous in detail as any as I can recall. In short, it was superb.

That said, at the beginning, I feared the worst. It’s an ominous work, of course, but here the sense of foreboding initially revolved around the performance rather than the music itself, as our bassoonist only just held his notoriously tricky opening solo together. Hold it together he did, though, and from the first entry of the strings, shoulders throughout the orchestra almost visibly seemed to relax as everyone settled in (if that’s the right term) for the ride.

And what a ride. Immaculately paced and, best of all, with superb orchestral balance – how many Rites rapidly turn into a brass-and-percussion fest? – the crescendo towards the climax that is the ‘Dance of the Earth’ at the end of the first half was spellbinding in its intensity. Aided by the superb Bridgewater Hall acoustic, meanwhile, the work’s many individual solo moments were picked out with clarity and, as you’d expect from such an accomplished conductor of Falla, Stravinsky’s contemporary and fellow Diaghilev commissionee, Mena’s Rite really did dance rather than just continually stomp.

Broadcast live on Radio 3 (and available to listen to again on iPlayer here - until 16 May), the BBC Phil’s Rite was also one of a number of concerts included in its ‘Journey Through Music’ series, aimed at 8-14 year-olds (and for whom there was a superb, specially written section of notes in the programme). I hope they found this magnificent performance as thrilling as I did. I’d certainly be surprised if it left them cold.