Review: WNO Orchestra - Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring @ SDH
1913. The year that changed music forever.
The world would see one of the most astonishing and devastating works of music that has ever been conceived. The riot which amounted during this performance in Paris is the stuff of legend. I have wanted to write about The Rite Of Spring for many years. Now is my time. But first things first, Wagnerâ€¦
As it’s the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth (he born two hundred years ago), WNO are gearing up for a season of Wagner-related delights. Their summer season will consist of a new production of his opera Lohengrin and the UK premier of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, detailing the last few days of his life. I wait for both with bated breath. I simply cannot wait for these performances.
The full programme of music in this concert was enough to blow the roof off Saint David’s Hall. Our maestro was Lothar Koenigs, their latest music director in a fine line up of great conductors. He started with the Prelude to Wagner’s last completed opera Parsifal. I had the honour of witnessing the full work at a concert performance last year with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera at the WMC. It was a momentous event and certainly one to never forget.
The Prelude evokes some tasters of the story, all to do with the Holy Grail, The Holy Lance and other Christian related bric-a-brac. It sounds dull, but I found the story quite engrossing and the music is some of the best Wagner ever wrote. The Prelude is very noble and bold. The themes heard are played again countless times throughout the four-hour opera. I was sad to hear that the Good Friday Music from the opera, had been omitted from the concert. It was listed in previous brochures. This is a splendid extract and is one of the highlights of the opera. I recall putting a link on Good Friday to the Good Friday Music up on Facebook last year, with some friends saying just how much they enjoyed it. A real nice surprise. Yet greatly missed here at this concert, since it goes so well with the prelude.
Next were two highlights from his Ring Of The Nibelung. Certainly the greatest artistic endeavour ever created by man. If you are thinking you have never heard of this, then you may have to think again. I’m sure you have heard of The Ride Of The Valkyries, which is taken from Die WalkÃ¼re (The Valkyrie) the second opera of the Ring Cycle (it can also be known as this). The first opera is Das Rheingold, the third Siegfried and the last GÃ¶tterdÃ¤mmerung (Twilight Of The Gods).
Orchestral extracts from his operas have brilliantly been coined ‘bleeding chunks’. So we had two of these chunks from the third act of GÃ¶tterdÃ¤mmerung. After twenty hours of music (yes, really!), we come to the end of a story that would bring The Lord Of The Rings to shame. Many characters have attempted to gain the ring of power. Siegfried has been killed by Hagen, leading to the spectacular Siegfried’s Funeral March. His lover BrÃ¼nnhilde, the Valkyrie of the second opera knows exactly what she has to doâ€¦
She must give up the ring and in doing so, give up her own life. Only then can the world be restored anew from Alberich’s curse. It’s a very long story. I could bore you for eons with it. So the end of cycle is BrÃ¼nnhilde’s Immolation. It's quite jarring to hear this without a soprano screaming, bellowing and pining for Siegfried (she’s actual his aunt, but with incest abound in the ring, I won't go into that). She rides her horse Grane into his funeral pyre. Thus setting off the fires, floods and more to start over and set the world aright.
These twenty minutes of music plays so many of the leitmotifs (individual music for each character, event, object, emotion etc.) from the four operas. It's like a massive flashback. The intensity is overwhelming. If you were to sit through the whole Ring Cycle (I have yearned to do this for years) it’s a great tonic to have the music calm down at the very end and snugs itself into a quiet and reassuring conclusion, to this most massive of epics.
As if this wasn’t enough for a single concert, the evening would end with Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Either part of the evening would have added greatly to another concert, but to have all this in a single concert is just so generous and ambitious. This composition started life out as a ballet with choreography by the great Russian Vaslav Nijinsky, yet has become an orchestral showpiece of the 20th century. People at the premiere shouted, screamed, shook the chairs, yet the show went on in defiance. Nijinsky was apparently being held back in the wings telling audience members to shut up.
Poor Stravinsky who was seated in the auditorium, walked out with the words ‘kiss my a**!’ to the rowdy audience. The theatre manger even turned on the house lights to try and squash the commotion. Nothing could stop this most snobbish and stupid of Parisian crowds. There would have actually been some people there who would have liked to have seen the work without commotion. I feel sorry for them since the event would have been ruined. Out of all the great moments in cultural history, this is certainly one event I would have loved to have been at. It was history in the making.
It is a must to hear this work live. Recordings are great, but like all music, its miles better in concert. There is nothing quite like hearing the Rite preformed by an orchestra. At the time of its premier, it was the largest number of players formed for a ballet. The sheer manic and explosive nature of the work always puts me in mind of its original context (but also a ticking time bomb). In the ballet we see pagan Russian tribes who do their usual thing of worship and then leading to a sacrifice. But who will be chosen? It turns out to be a young maiden who is thrilled at the prospects of dancing to death. She breaks her neck at the end as the flute indicates this with a rising little riff and the other rises her up to the gods with a thunderous chop from the whole orchestra.
I found myself paralysed by the music. It’s the fourth time I’ve heard it live and it still never fails to make me close my eyes in disbelief and give me goosebumps. My plus one who is a lover of heavy metal, was in safe territory with Wagner and Stravinsky (there are parallels in their music). She told me the Rite gave her chills. I vow to always bring someone with me now to hear this remarkable work. One of my other friends who heard it few years back suffers with ADHD. She laughed halfway through as she was overwhelmed by the primitive nature of the work. Afterwards she said of how much it impacted on her and spoke of the ‘omba omba omba’ type rhythms of the music. Quite so.
It’s a piece to musically shock, devastate and dazzle you. Many living composers today will say how much influence it gave them. It heralded in the new century, full of daring and new types of art. The staggering nature of the modern arts that is still seen today has turned the arts world on its head and made us question the whole idea of art.
Well done to the orchestra and Koenigs for a musical avalanche of an evening. I doubt any concert could soon rival this.
Best concert of the year.
Related Article: Review: The Welsh Sinfonia - Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll @ RWCMD