In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle believes in what he does and he does it extremely well. Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair. And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing.
Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end. In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever. This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling.
The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time. A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910. The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories. All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art. In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature. As orchestral music The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free. A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling. The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons. In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh. so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky.
Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic. Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead. Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messaien, more connections than one might expect. Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra.
And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory. Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth. Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos. Listen again on BBC Radio 3.
Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican :
National Treasures : British Composers Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes
Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust