Not quite on fire,bird: almost listening to Stravinsky

Continuing the further, woe-begotten adventures of my almost-getting-to-concerts acquaintance…


We booked two Stravinsky Proms, one for a weekday evening – Le Sacre, which is my all-time favourite ballet score (slightly ahead of Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet) and the second – Firebird for a Saturday evening. The Rite of Spring went without a hitch, even though we had to rush there straight from work.

The morning of the Saturday of the Firebird arrived and I was feeling particularly pleased about being able to travel to the Albert Hall at a relatively leisurely pace. There is usually an ice-cream van parked close to the Albert memorial and I imagined that we would have time to get a Mr Whippy and then a coffee in one of the bar areas inside the Hall where we would also peruse the programme and spend some rare unrushed together time. I told C about the ice cream and coffee plan and he was very pleased. (He likes it when I come up with pleasant passtimes rather than lists of jobs for him to do like taking out the rubbish and painting the hall).

With both of us in a good mood, I decided to do some gardening (I really like gardening, but C regards it as his domain meaning that who does what, when and where in the garden has caused conflict on previous occasions. However, the afore mentioned plan had earnt me enough currency to be allowed to potter with favour). So, I went into the ivy and berberis and clematis tangle on the back fence armed with secateurs and gloves and the first incident occured – a small insect flew straight into my eye. This took 20 minutes back indoors to sort out. I didn’t notice the second insect or gang of insects that must have attached to my shin. I only noticed the red discomfort on my leg some time later at the same time as my eye started to itch and water again. I had to abandon the gardening and walk to the chemist to get advice for my eye. I didn’t think the shin was serious. The pharmacist gave me some cream for my eye.

By the time I got home my shin area was looking red and angry. I put the cream in my eye, dabbed some witch hazel on my leg and took a good dose of Piriton. Then I went to bed for a bit of a snooze. When I woke up, I felt a bit strange but I had been asleep for quite a while and C said it was time to get ready to go out. I glugged some more Piriton from the bottle and we went to get the train. When we changed onto the tube, I decided to close my eyes, but the constant anouncements of the next stations kept me awake – I became tetchy. We had the ice cream and coffee in silence as I was feeling too odd for small talk and C was now cross that I had messed up the evening by gardening. I apologised and said how much I was loking forward to the concert and how much I appreciated him buying the tickets. This did the trick and we took our seats in the auditorium as friends.

There were some other works on first, which I have blotted from my memory as sadly I just sat there in a stupor. In the interval C went for a drink and I took a small glug of Piriton, thinking it would help with the itchy eye and shin, which had started up again. Then once more the usual announcements, the conductor, the applause, the lights dim. I am vaguely aware of some brass sounds coming from different places around the auditorium and then no more – until C nudges me awake because I have started snoring. I shift in the seat and close my eyes again to be woken at the end by the applause. C said it was a good concert and I was a very poor concert companion.

The journey home was undertaken in reproachful silence.

On Sunday night when I was feeling much better we listened to the Firebird on CD.


Four-hand Rite of Spring: piano power-play

Hearing a concert performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in its piano-duet incarnation earlier this week reminded me of something I had forgotten: the emphatically pianistic nature of Stravinsky’s monster.

The orchestral version of the piece is a rich tapestry of colour in the same vein occupied by Stravinsky’s predecessor, Rimsky-Korsakov. And whilst it’s a brilliant evocation of a romantic symphony orchestra tearing itself to pieces as it grapples with the nightmare of the ritual it seeks to portray, hearing the four-hand version reminded me that Stravinsky wrote it at the piano, and that many of the cluster-chords and superimposed blocks of harmony are a direct result of how the notes lie under the pianist’s fingers.

Debussy, that master Impressionist, played the arrangement with Stravinsky early on and called it ”a beautiful nightmare.” Hearing it in stripped of its orchestration really brings home the percussive power of the piece, the dissonances formed by clusters of chords under the fingers, the importance of the octatonic scale (two superimposed diminshed sevenths, a semitone apart: the harmonic possibilites offered by this set of notes are richly varied), and the shattering of rhythmic stability as the piece struggles to cope with the destructive forces fighting to break loose.

The octatonic scale on C

The performance, unleashed by legends Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, reminded me anew of just how indebted Stravinsky’s piece is to its pianistic origins. This is to take nothing away from the work: it loses little in its duet arrangement (especially when performed by these two giants of the British piano scene). It’s still a monster.

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