This morning, the London Symphony Orchestra broadcast their weekly performance from their archives and it was a doozy! Sir Simon Rattle conducted all three of Igor Stravinsky’s ballets, Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, on one concert.
It was not too long ago that the very notion of performing one of them on one concert posed a serious technical challenge for most professional orchestras. To see the great LSO perform them in one sitting is a testament to their sheer brilliance!
But it got me thinking about how these pieces are rarely experienced in their original guise, as music to accompany dance! Most orchestras large and small now play these three pieces with regularity, and rightly so. Stravinsky’s scores are some of the most brilliant music ever written and deserve to be heard as frequently as possible. However, when you hear these pieces in context, with the orchestra in the pit, helping to tell the story alongside ingenious choreography, incredibly executed by the most fragile and brilliant of artists, the ballet dancer, these scores come alive in a way that could never happen on the concert stage.
I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite orchestral performances of these three ballets, alongside videos of my favorite choreographed performances I could find on YouTube.
Stravinsky’s first opera for Diaghilev’s sensational Ballets Russe was premiered during their 1910 season at the Opera Garnier, in Paris. The reviews were ecstatic in their response and it catapulted Stravinsky’s career. Here is a short documentary on the history of the Ballets Russe, narrated by Tilda Swinton.
One of the orchestral performances I have always enjoyed watching was this performance with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic from the 2000 Salzburg Festival.
Here is a wonderful video of the great Diana Vishneva dancing the title role from a performance in 2002 of the Kirov Ballet at Théâtre du Châtelet.
Here’s another fantastic performance conducted by Valery Gergiev from the Mariinsky Theater in 2008 with Ekaterina Kondaurova dancing the Firebird.
Premiered in 1911, the highly anticipated second partnering of Stravinsky and Diaghilev was no disappointment. One of the most popular of all of the Ballets Russe productions, it tells the story of three puppets.
Here is very powerful performance with Charles Dutoit leading the Montreal Symphony from 1996.
Here is an interesting film from Moscow in 2002 with Bolshoy State Academic Theatre Orchestra conducted by Andrey Chistiakov. Petrushka is danced by Andris Liepa.
The Rite of Spring
Who knows how much of a riot the April 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring actually caused, but without doubt the premiere of this ballet, with audiences apparently coming to fisticuffs, was a spectacular way to enter the world!
There are so many great recordings, but I’d like to share with you one of my favorite historical recordings, with Igor Markevitch leading The Philharmonia Orchestra. There simply isn’t a better recording of the primordial soup that is the beginning of this piece.
One of the greatest examples of Bernstein’s conducting genius is this video of him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from 1967.
And it’s always great to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and they’re on fire in this video!
But as impressive as it is to see an orchestra get through this intensely score with such ease and panache, it just simply pales in comparison to hearing it while watching the ballet.
One of the singular voice of ballet in the second half of the 20th century was the german choreographer, Pina Bausch. Her revolutionary take on The Rite of Spring springs forth from the earth in an even more elemental way the original Nijinsky choreography. This 1978 performance is not to be missed.
Finally, I leave you with an amazing performance of a reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography and Roerich set and costumes. This is a special performance as it documents the 100th anniversary of the premiere in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.