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The Story of “Le Sacre du printemps
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor), Pierre Boulez (Composer), Alexander Toradze (Pianist), Peter Rump (Director)
A co-production of Mondara Arts and NPS TV (2016) – 57’
Arthaus Musik #109210 (or Blu-ray #109211) – Booklet in English and German – Subtitles in French (Distributed by Naxos of America)

This 1999 documentary is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It combines archival film and standard definition video, all in 1:1.33 aspect ratio, so the Blu-ray disc has no particular advantage over the DVD (both include PCM stereo audio.) The film, to be sure, is interesting at certain levels though it lacks strong focus or point of view.

Interviews with Igor Stravinsky himself at various ages are included. However, we never have a tremendous sense of how or why the composer had been motivated to create a score as revolutionary as Le Sacre du printemps. Like just about every music history book from the past century, the documentary tells of riots which ensued at the Paris premiere in 1913, though it still remains unclear if these riots were an expression of disapproval of the work’s brutalist style, or a celebration of innovation, or even both. The archival images shown in this regard simply reveal crowds milling around in a theater – not exactly a riot.

For musicians and music lovers, the film’s main interest are the rehearsals with veteran Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic preparing a performance of Le Sacre. These segments offer an enlightening glimpse into the methods of an experienced conductor who knows what he wants and communicates this with his players verbally as well as on his Hamburg Steinway. He advises the bassoon player not to play the opening phrase too quietly or lyrically; later, he instructs players not to make a diminuendo, noting the score is marked pianissimo but not decrescendo. Elsewhere he cautions players not to pay undue attention to others nearby, but to focus on their own work – it’s the conductor’s job to put everything together – he seems to be reminding them.

We also glimpse him reminiscing about first playing Le Sacre du printemps as a piano duo with his friend, Alexander Toradze, and further discussing Stravinsky’s continuation of orchestration and other techniques from Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and other Russians who flourished during the later 19th century. Stravinsky’s early work, Gergiev notes, encompasses Tchaikovsky’s lyricism and orchestration with the harsher, perhaps muscular qualities associated with the others.

Interviews with Stravinsky, in English and French (the latter, conversing with Pierre Boulez), are not overly revealing. If there’s a highlight to the archival materials, it would be footage of Clarens, Switzerland where the composer did primary work on the score during 1911, and a location where Tchaikovsky had written his Violin Concerto in 1878. Here viewers can sense the peaceful environment which enabled these composers to concentrate on creating great music. As well, footage of an early and a more recent dance performance also helps generate a glimpse of Le Sacre’s historical and artistic importance.

However, none of this information really adds up to a strong thesis or re-evaluation. This documentary would work best as a bonus feature for a video of a new production of this Stravinsky masterpiece.

Charles Pope Jr.




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