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A Gripping New Version of The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring might at first glance seem an unlikely candidate for keyboard transcription. It calls for a huge orchestra, colorfully deployed. But the percussive ferocity of the writing, its sheer physicality, is an irresistible lure for pianists. 

Stravinsky himself left a piano-duet version. It’s actually the first version, part of the compositional process and never intended as a concert work. But a concert work it has become, typically played on two pianos. Solo piano versions have also been created. At PostClassical Ensemble’s “Interpreting Stravinsky” festival of 2011, we heard the four-hand version (on two pianos), and also a version of the closing Danse sacrale in a version for four pianos and percussion. We also heard the Danse sacrale played by Rex Lawson on a pianola – the complex player-piano that fascinated Stravinsky, and for which he created versions of The Rite of Spring and other symphonic scores, in addition to an Etude (1917) specifically conceived for pianola.

Over the past year – during Covid – the pianist Alexander Korsantia has created yet another Rite of Spring. He has equipped his piano with two additional pedals for the left foot. One activates a bass drum, the other a combination of drum and tambourine. As Korsantia is a pianist of extraordinary attainments, the result is riveting, original, unforgettable.

You can see Korsantia perform his version of The Rite of Spring at the top of this blog. You can hear him talk about it by accessing the latest PostClassical webcast – our singular series of two-hour shows on the WWFM Classical Network. 

The larger topic of this webcast, “The Russian Stravinsky,” is how to interpret the music of a composer who insisted his music not be interpreted. Korsantia is a product of what I would call a “Russian school” of Stravinsky interpretation that erupted in the 1960s, when the neo-classical Stravinsky first became widely known to Soviet pianists and conductors. They seemingly resisted Stravinsky’s strictures against interpretation, or his Paris polemics that music meant nothing beyond itself. 

If you listen to Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto performed by Alexander Toradze and Valery Gergiev, you aren’t hearing anything like performances of this piece, composed in Paris in 1923-24, once purveyed by the composer. It’s weightier, slower, and in the central Largo more unmistakably religious. It sounds “Russian.”

Korsantia is a product of Toradze’s amazing Toradze Piano Studio in South Bend, Indiana. When he performs Stravinsky’s Tango (also on our PostClassical webcast), he interpolates the four-note motto of Beethoven’s Fifth.

What did Stravinsky himself sound like? Our webcast samples his 1938 recording, with his son Soulima, of Mozart’s C minor Fugue for two pianos. It is an essential point of reference. I would call this the most insolently impersonal Mozart performance ever recorded. It is nothing if not an act of interpretation.

You can also sample, on our webcast, Rex Lawson’s pianola performance of the Dance sacrale – again from PCE’s Stravinsky festival. And we hear Stravinsky performing his Piano Sonata on a Duo-art piano roll. PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez, encountering this performance for the first time, found it “less musical than a pianola” – and that memorable response, too, is part of our webcast.  

George Vatchnadze, another Toradze Studio product, next performs Stravinsky’s Sonata – using an edition prepared by Soulima after his father’s death. In a preface, Soulima advises interpreters of this work to ignore his father’s strictures against interpretation – and George does, thoroughly.

Finally, we hear Angel conducting PostClassical Ensemble in a performance of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in which the slow movement is much slower than Stravinsky prescribed. The result is memorably droll. The entire reading exudes a lyricism at odds with “Stravinsky style.”

I would add that Stravinsky’s own recordings of his music, as conductor, are outstanding – more robust that what we hear from conductors like Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen. They project what George Balanchine called the “dance element” in Stravinsky – an earthy physicality to set the body moving. But they aren’t “definitive” — the last word. As Korsantia remarks during the webcast discussion, there comes a time when a parent must relinquish his offspring.

THE RUSSIAN STRAVINSKY “POSTCLASSICAL” WEBCAST – A Listener’s Guide: 

Part One:

5:16: Igor and Soulima Stravinsky perform Mozart’s Fugue in C minor (1938)

18:16: Danse sacrale from The Rite of Spring, performed by Alexander Korsantia (solo piano and drum)

26:23: Stravinsky talks about The Rite of Spring

30:02: Another excerpt from Korsantia’s Rite of Spring

37:12: Stravinsky’s Tango performed by Korsantia

46:10 Giya Kancheli’s Instead of Tango performed by George Vatchnadze

Part Two:

00:00: Stravinsky performed his Piano Sonata

21:32: George Vatchnadze performs Stravinsky’s PIano Sonata

47:44: Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, with PostClassical Ensemble

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