Stravinsky: Keeping Score: The Rite of Spring; The Firebird
Half of this is a documentary, fronted by Michael Tilson Thomas, which starts by exploring the background to The Rite of Spring, and the musical scene in St Petersburg before the First World War. As it moves forward to the Rite it mixes various elements: Tilson Thomas taking us through the score, sometimes at the piano, sometimes with the orchestra, and at an introductory children’s concert stirring memories of Leonard Bernstein. It’s a pity we don’t see more of that, but there are compensatory nuggets from the orchestral players, especially wind and percussion, talking about how they see the music from inside. And when Tilson Thomas comes to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and walks us through the scandal of the premiere, he ties the music to the ballet very skilfully: scenes from a recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography make you realise how modern the work was in 1913.
Tellingly, Tilson Thomas says the Rite ‘is not shocking any more, but it is thrilling,’ and that’s a good description of the San Francisco Symphony’s performance. Prefaced by the closing sections of Firebird, it’s rhythmically taut, but rather too polished to convey the earthy danger of the music that comes across strongly in the documentary. The sound is bright and brassy, with a strong bass line, but sometimes lacking in middle. And the camerawork can be fussy, as if Stravinsky’s rhythmic complexity needs to be mirrored in rapid cross-cutting. Still, the package as a whole is a good introduction to this masterpiece.