The Rite of Spring
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 14 May, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Ravel was bitterly disappointed to have La Valse rejected by none other than Diaghilev and so, even with its literal title, this masterpiece made its way to the concert hall (although it was staged later in Ravel’s lifetime, not least by Ida Rubinstein in Paris). Whether its reputation would have survived a first performance as played by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Russell Keable is debatable. This was a dull interpretation, too slow throughout and completely lacking the visceral tension and excitement that is latent in the music.
If this was a disappointment it pales into insignificance when listening to the next work. Rodion Shchedrin married a prima ballerina in 1958 and created Carmen Ballet for his wife to star in. Scored for strings and an array of percussion, certain possibilities loomed large only to be thwarted by the complete lack of imagination shown by Shchedrin utilising Bizet’s melodies. This work is unbelievably cheap, coarse and fit only for the gutter. It can be compared to attending the pantomime rather than a Shakespeare play in quality. What little music my ears allowed in showed a spirited performance by the orchestra but why waste time and effort on such tawdry material?
And so to the great apotheosis of 20th-century dance, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Now approaching its centenary it is possible to relate it more closely to its Russian antecedents, particularly the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s teacher, than to the later achievements he made in devising a major route for modernism that still permeates today. This is due to the essentially sectional style adopted and the emphasis on colour over form: both ingredients of Romantic Russian music.
Keable achieved a spirited if not entirely accurate performance that turned out to be more satisfying than the sleek, glossy renditions heard from most professional orchestras. Indeed this performance could well have been close in manner to the premiere in Paris. The players were paying attention to Keable’s clear direction and struggled valiantly with the work’s ebb and flow. Regarded ever since its infamous first night premiere as a seminal work, opening new musical paths into the 20th-century, it can also be heard as a showpiece for orchestra, and a rather shallow one at that, something gratefully avoided in this account.