Monday, 15 July 2013

Roth rocks baroque : Different Rite of Spring Les Siècles BBC Prom 4

Le sacre du Printemps (the Rite of Spring) but not as we know it! At BBC Prom 4, François-Xavier Roth conducted a unique version created with French-Canadian musicologist Louis Cyr. It's a recreation of how the music was heard at its first performance in 1913. Stravinsky revised the work several times and we know it from the definitive 1967 version. But the "original" intrigues.

Roth says "By rewriting the score to make it easier for players, Stravinsky removed many sound textures and colours that were there in 1913. In the original version of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’, for example, he included subtle variations in the texture to bring out the rhythm, alternating pizzicato and bowed strings..... Ansermet wrote to Stravinsky in 1922 and asked if he might reintroduce this alternation. Orchestras are not ready for it, Stravinsky replied, but maybe they will be in sixty years!"

Hearing the "first" Le sacre du Printemps shows how carefully Stravinsky structured the work. The music sounds primitive but it's not barbarian.  The maiden's sacrifice stems from deeply-held animist beliefs. The violence in this piece is meticulously channelled. The stylization reflects the ritual the Bear People have enacted for millennia. Roth's clear, lucid textures accentuate the underlying logic. The controlled silences twitch with tension, so the explosive outbursts have maximum impact. Roth's approach highlights the sense of fragility and wonder. Spring will come after a hard winter : tender plants will shoot from the hard ground. The maiden's death is part of a cycle of rebirth and renewal. 

Les Siècles is a period ensemble but it's not the instruments they use that count. When they play Stravinsky, they apply the aesthetic of French form so we can hear the intelligence in Stravinsky's creation.

Historically-informed performance is often misunderstood. As Nicholas Harnoncourt has said , it was a movement away from the bland and homogenized to something more human..The Baroque was a period of expansion: Europe was discovering the world, embracing change and discovery. The Baroque aesthetic was confident, brash and exuberant.  Les Siècles, founded by Roth in 2002, approaches the baroque in this spirit.  Rameau's Les Indes galantes typifies the style, with its  tableaux of exotic aliens: Turks, Incas, Persians, Red Indians (in this case PC doesn't count. These "indians" aren't real). Extravagant visuals and music to stimulate the imagination. Nothing timid!

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was a robust satire by Molière, poking fun at pretension. The music moves as if in ceremonial procession.  Molière is sending everyone up, even the Court. Like Lully himself, Roth conducts with a staff. It's not affectation. It's a percussion instrument, meant to be heard. Music for dance needs a pulse. Even though we can't see dancers we can hear them as an invisible presence in this rhythmic structure. Listen for the marching drum and small beaten bells. They are portable instruments, evoking open-air, sunshine and a spirit of freedom.

Baroque music was also visual. Lully employs Turkish bells, a huge, golden instrument shaped like a mobile pagoda with bells on. You're fascinated, waiting in anticipation. The percussionist stamps it on the ground like the conductor's staff, and the bells ring wildly. Music "was" theatre. The origins of modern music theatre go back even beyond courtly displays to Church ceremonial and military display.

Roth and Les Siècles followed Lully with Rameau, a suite from Les Indes galantes.. It was a telling choice, because it emphasized the formal structure of the piece rather than its flamboyance. Just as in Lully, the orchestra is balanced visually as well as aurally: four trumpets, four basses, four flutes and Lully's staff and Turkish bells. But Rameau sounds new and different. Roth's pacing makes the music fly, so when the formal rhythm returns it feels so jaunty that you want to dance along. The petite percussionist threw herself so forcefully into her playing that she bounced up and down. Delightful detail!

Combining Rameau and Stravinsky was an inspired choice. Both pieces depict "savages" who aren't savage. Le sacre du Printemps stems from a very long tradition in French music and dance.

From a ballet with a libretto to an opera with ballet : Délibes Coppélia and  Massenet Le Cid. Again, the choices in this Prom were instructive. Roth and Les Siècles approached them with the same free, exuberant spirit that informed their Lully and Rameau. The Waltz from Coppélia sparkled: period instruments suggest lightness and irreverence. Beneath the comedy, there's a fragile wistfulness in the story, which responds better to Roth's approach than a more heavy-handed literal interpretation. Hearing the ballet excerpts from Le Cid without the opera made me realize how this Prom brought us full circle from the baroque to Stravinsky and Diaghilev.

This programme was devised for Les Flâneries de Reims and Radio France's Montpellier Festival. But at the BBC Proms it gets the high profile, international coverage it deserves. It was being filmed for broadcast on BBC TV 4 on 21st July. Hear it audio only here for 7 days and here until next Wednesday

1 comment:

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