Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Rite as you've never heard it before

Stravinsky - Rite of Spring - Les Siecle, Francois-Xavier Roth
Stravinsky Rite of Spring and Firebird; Les Siecles, Francois-Xavier Roth; Musicales Actes Sud
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 12 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Period instrument re-creation of the original versions of two iconic ballet scores

I heard Francois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles perform Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the 2013 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (see my review), and the performance was something of a revelation. Now the group has issued a live recording of the work alongside  a live recording of a re-creation of the original 1911 version of Petrushka on the Musicales Actes Sud label.

The sound world that Roth and Les Siecles have re-created is not that far from modern performance, but the differences are just sufficient to make listening to their performance a remarkable event. As might be expected, the strings are far less dominant and there is a great deal more clarity and magic in the performance. Many of Stravinsky's quieter textures are come over quite superbly. In the louder sections, you hear more detail as the woodwind are no longer swamped by string vibrato. And the wind instruments themselves have a great deal more character.

But any performance of the Rite of Spring has to stand being listened to repeatedly, and here we have to move beyond the novelty of simply hearing the new/old instruments and consider what Roth's performance is actually like. When listening to the Rite of Spring I want to get the feeling that what we have is a danced ritual, one which at times becomes uncontrollable. But I also want a sense of struggle, the struggle that perhaps the first performers brought to Stravinsky's music. Frankly, we probably would not t want to listen to the real original performance, and some of the very early recordings are pretty patchy.

Francois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles
But if you listen to the opening of Roth and Les Siecles in the Rite of Spring, what you get is a miraculous beauty, richness of timbre and transparency of sound. What you don't get, is the feeling that in some way the music is close to the edge. Modern players no longer struggle with the music as much as their predecessors and modern conductors get this in the performance by pressing the musicians in other ways. Here, Roth takes a calm, steady as she goes sort of approach.

Not only does much of the work sound comfortable, but the tempi have a steady feel to them; would anyone want to dance to this?

There is a wonderful sense of clarity and depth to the climaxes, you really hear the full detail of Stravinsky's orchestration and when all hell lets loose you can hear the constituent parts. At these moments, Roth does indeed manage to generate some vivid excitement, but it always seems under firm control. And towards the end the incisive attack of the strings, where attack is followed by a swifter dying off, is fabulous.

But for the ending, I did not hear someone dancing themselves to death even though the playing was technically superb. The closing bars did not evoke Monica Mason dancing in Kenneth MacMillan's version of the ballet, and neither did they evoke the image of Nijinsky demonstrating how his choreography really should go and thus making all those present wish he had been dancing the chosen virgin.

Perhaps because it involves more local colour and less strenuous struggle, Petrushka comes off far better. The opening tableau is simply wonderful with the evocative colour and detail. And the more rhythmic moments such as the Dance Russe are eminently danceable and very vivid.  In the tutti's the piano sound comes over far stronger than usual, giving a vivid sense of the work's genesis in a concertante piece for piano and orchestra.

Once inside the tent, the scenes are more intimate, but still as telling. Roth welds his disparate elements into evocative moments and some lovely colours. Perhaps the drama is not quite as vivid as it might be from a more experienced ballet conductor, but the colour and drama of the music is finely done.

The disc has quite a wide range of dynamics and needs to be played on a good sound system or else you keep twiddling the knob up and down. The disc is recorded live and seems, amazingly, to be the stitching together of just three concerts. There is little audience noise, and certainly little sense that the players are under pressure. This is in every way a very technically assured performance.

This is not the ultimate in Rite of Spring recordings, but everyone who is interested in the development of the work will want to hear it. And Roth and Les Siecles deserve all the credit for bringing it off so well.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) - Le Sacre du Printemps
Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) - Petrushka
Les  Siecles
Francois-Xavier Roth
Recorded Metz, Grenoble, Frankfurt - 14/5/2104, 16/5/2013, 28//9/2013
Musicales Actes Sud 1CD [68.54]

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