The Rite of Spring

National Youth Orchestra of Wales

By Susanna Jones

DEBUSSY said, "The Rite of Spring haunts me like a beautiful nightmare", and "beautiful nightmare" could be said to characterise all three of the theatrical works chosen for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales' programme last Thursday.

La Peri, by Dukas, La Tragedie de Salome by Schmitt and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring are all symphonic poems in balletic form, from the Diaghilev-inspired era of the Ballets Russes. Their respective oriental, biblical and pagan origins have in common the ultimate theme, that of death. The protagonist in La Peri tries, unsuccessfully, to cheat death by stealing the flower of immortality, the Schmitt piece involves the violent death of John the Baptist and in The Rite of Spring, a young girl is sacrificed in a fatal dance.

Dukas and Schmitt were contemporaries at the Paris Conservatoire (Schmitt winning the Prix de Rome in 1900, Dukas coming second in 1888), and their style is that of French Romantic Impressionism in the manner of the more familiar Nocturnes by Debussy and later Ravel's La Valse - all powerful essays in orchestral colour and sonority. By contrast, although Stravinsky is said to have admired Schmitt's Salome, the vividness of the Rite is achieved by more outlandish means, employing the violent asymmetric rhythms and frank dissonances which, combined with Nijinsky's choreography, so famously upset the audience at its premiere that a riot ensued.

One hundred years on, we are not so easily shocked. These dramatic and demanding pieces, masterfully orchestrated for the maximum instrumental range with large forces in all sections, gave the cream of Wales's young musicians every opportunity to display their prodigious talents. There were immaculate solos throughout, particularly for oboe, bassoon and horn, and polished and sophisticated playing from a powerful body of strings. There was excellence in all departments (including some deft handling of cumbersome tuba mutes and unseen but very much heard percussion) and overall this was a hugely impressive performance of an exotic and difficult programme, deserving the highest praise.