One of the most well-known pieces of the twentieth-century classical repertoire is of course Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The Southbank Centre's Rest is Noise festival could not miss this piece, and tonight's concert, titled "Revolution in Paris", coupled it with two other pieces first premièred in Paris: Maurice Ravel's ballet Ma mère l'oye and Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 1.
Ravel's Ma mère L'oye is a ballet inspired by a children's story, with music that exudes warmth and humour. However, the London Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of the piece left the listener which much to desire. Even though the notes were played perfectly, the performance lacked heart, it lacked passion and thereby reduced Ravel's music to something much less interesting than it truly is. Even though Mikhail Agrest – a last minute replacement for the ill Yannick Nézet-Séguin – lead the orchestra expertly in the second and third pieces of the evening, I could not help but wish for Nézet-Séguin's touch in the Ravel.
The second piece of the evening more than made up for the lacklustre opening. Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 1 received a dream interpretation by Leila Josefowicz and the LPO. A three-movement concerto, it is technically challenging and demands not only skill from the performer but a willingness to bring out its lightness, whimsy and absolutely gorgeous melodies. Although finished in 1917, the concerto did not receive a première until 1925 – many violinists were not interested in playing the piece, though thankfully it is now performed much more often.
Leila Josefowicz is very well known for her interpretations of contemporary violin concertos, having premièred, for example, Esa-Pekka Salonen's concerto. But the more lyrical nature of Prokofiev's piece suited her perfectly, and she clearly enjoyed playing it. To me, the Prokofiev sounds like a very physical piece. Not because of the physical act of the violinist's playing, but because both the music and the way it's played invoke a physical reaction as much as a mental one. This means that a soloist's performance must be an intense as the music requires, and Josefowicz's willingness to immerse herself in the music and play every single note not only with conviction, but with authenticity and intensity made her performance one to remember.
As a violin concerto, Prokofiev's first is one of those that often directs all attention to the soloist to such an extent that you might forget there is an orchestra accompanying her. However, the LPO proved not only a humble accompanist but an able sparring partner and guider as well, making the performance beautifully dynamic and rich. This was especially apparent in the third movement. Once the madness of the second movement died down, Josefowicz and the orchestra gave a beautiful ending with the subtlety and the passion that was so lacking in Ma mère l'oye.
The Rite of Spring is an exhilarating piece of music, no matter how many times you hear it. The story of its première at the Ballets Russes in Paris is often told, where the patrons were so shocked by the ballet and music that many walked out or even started rioting. The negative reaction was mostly aimed at the choreography, however, and not so much at Stravinsky's music. Considering how fresh and dramatic the LPO made the piece sound tonight, I can only imagine just how much impressive its original première must have been.
The physicality of Prokofiev's concerto is also very much present in The Rite of Spring, where even as a listener every single muscle in your body seems to be participating. Every time the orchestra lulled you into a sense of comfort, Stravinsky's music delivered an abrupt awakening, and this is part of its strength. The rhythms, the melodies, the brass and percussion, every note, every melody is in the right place. The woodwinds of the LPO led the orchestra in a faultless performance. We probably won't see any riots at concert halls any more, but if any work deserved to be recorded in history for its thrilling music, it is The Rite of Spring.
The Rite went down rather badly, its language based in deranged rhythm rather than civilised harmony, its choreography changing the point of expression from the ankle to the pelvis.
Ten years later, one of the few to take a shine to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto at its premiere was Stravinsky, who revelled in its childlike beauty and innocence.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Leila Josefowicz © Henry Fair