Could listening to The Rite of Spring for 38 days drive a music critic to distraction? As Limelight’s sacrificial guinea pig, I found out.

To commemorate The Rite of Spring’s centenary, Universal Classics has issued a boxed set of 20 discs, containing 35 performances of the orchestral score and three of the composer’s four-hand piano arrangement. That’s 21 hours and 34 minutes – of the same piece! The recordings have been drawn mostly from the Decca, DG and Philips extensive catalogues. However, a few significant versions are missing: Stokowski’s soundtrack, Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic performance (about which the composer commented simply: “Wow!”), two EMI recordings under Diaghilev’s last protégé Igor Markevitch, and Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording for Columbia (Sony).

Three editions are used: the original of 1913, a revision made for the concert hall in 1921 and a further re-orchestration in 1947. The differences between them are almost undetectable to the naked ear. Limelight invited me to take part in the rather daunting experiment of listening to one Rite per
day, chronologically, for 38 days. A bit like being chosen to test out a new drug. It’s a marathon, but I am prepared: coffee, tea, wine, spirits and chocolate (as a last resort) are all at the ready. I’ve read up on my
 Ballets Russes history. The shrink-wrap’s 
off and CD1 is in the machine. Bring on 
that eerie high bassoon!

Day 1 Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum, September 1946

A committed, often frenzied performance from the smooth-toned Concertgebouw. Van Beinum’s signature clarity is evident, but the primitive edge is missing – literally, because percussion is virtually inaudible. Verdict: Two and a Half Stars

Thought for the day: “Should I listen first thing in the morning with a coffee to focus (as I just did) or late at night with a glass of wine to
add to the ambience? Does mixing it up compromise the experiment? What about the days when I’m too busy? On headphones on the train? Is that fair to the other commuters? Or to Igor?”

Day 2 L’orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet, October 1950

Ansermet premiered many of Stravinsky’s works and his restraint is interesting. On the minus side, the Suisse Romande was a second-tier orchestra with recurring intonation problems. Verdict: Two Stars

Thought for the day: “A scary thought: from now on, all these performances were recorded during my lifetime!”

Day 3 RIAS Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay, March 1954

Gutsy. The Dance of the Adolescents has real implacability, and Fricsay finds atmosphere in the opening of The Sacrifice, but it still seems like unfamiliar music. Some musicians are clearly feeling their way. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 4 Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti, December 1953

Here I encountered the stunningly present sound of a Mercury recording: exciting even in mono. Doráti, an experienced ballet conductor, knows what this piece
is about. The Minneapolis strings are appropriately rough-edged. Verdict: Three Stars

Thought for the day: “That one had me dancing. Maybe this could be part of a balletic fitness regime?”

Day 5 Orchestre des Cento Soli/Rudolf Albert, April 1956

Based in Paris, this handpicked band played
a lot of contemporary music, and sound
less intimidated by Le Sacre than their contemporaries. This marks a step forward in accuracy and instrumental virtuosity. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 6 Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire/Pierre Monteux, November 1956

Given that Monteux conducted the premiere, the elegance of this performance is surprising. Accents are lightly stressed as he encourages his French-toned orchestra to play the score in a classical style. While of historical interest, this hardly conveys the ballet’s pagan spirit. Verdict: Two and a Half Stars

Day 7 L’orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet, April 1957

Ansermet’s ballet background shows in his pacing; he knows how and when to whip up excitement (as in Jeu du rapt). His orchestra sounds better in this stereo remake, although they still have a sour oboe and wobbly trombone. The final chord depicting the death of the sacrificial virgin lands like a meteor. Verdict: Three Stars

Thought for the day: “First week complete and I remain relatively sane. At least, as sane as I already was.”

Day 8 Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/ Antal Doráti, November 1959

Doráti’s stereo remake in Minneapolis is outstanding. Sound is brilliantly revealing and the orchestra excels. Maybe 1950s American musicians had no trouble with Stravinsky’s rhythms because they knew their big-band jazz? The swiftest performance so far. Verdict: Four Stars

Day 9 Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan, 1963

Stravinsky hated this recording: “Karajan is not out of his depth so much as in my shallows”. But I liked it! Karajan was a great colourist, and ensemble is perfect. Maybe it is too “beautiful”, but it is far from being faceless. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Day 10 London Symphony Orchestra/ Colin Davis, November 1963

The young Colin Davis pumps out a vital performance with an orchestra about to hit its prime. The dry Philips recording transforms them into a first-rate pit band. Davis’s first Rite sounds like new music. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Day 11 Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta, August 1969

Brilliantly recorded, this ushers in the era of The Rite as orchestral showpiece. The vertiginous bassoon solo no longer feels tricky and the offbeat accents are tight in a punchy performance under a charismatic young maestro. Some tempos feel rushed. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 12 Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Tilson Thomas, November 1972

Even younger than Mehta was, Tilson Thomas is spot-on for timing. His Boston players are refined but not to the point of blandness. A well-shaped performance of an orchestral work, if not necessarily a ballet. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Thought for the day: “A third of the way through. I thought I’d be getting restless by now, but as soon as that Dance of the Adolescents rhythm kicks in I’m hooked again. The Rite must bring out the primitive in us – though if Stravinsky’s music is primitive, what does that make today’s rave tracks?”

Day 13 London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Bernard Haitink, Jan-Feb 1973

Le Sacre is hardly the repertoire for this most levelheaded of conductors. Everything is in its place but Haitink’s savages are tame. No audience would riot over this. Verdict: Two and a Half Stars

Day 14 London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Erich Leinsdorf, December 1973

This collection is a fascinating history of recording standards. Leinsdorf comes from the days of Decca Phase 4 multi-tracking: huge effects, solos in thrusting 3D. Rather wearing by the end. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 15 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Lorin Maazel, March 1974

Burnished woodwinds turn the opening into Wagner, but Maazel’s conducting is dramatically charged. This Rite is a film score: Jeu du rapt builds with Hitchcock-like intensity. Lush but vivid. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Thought for the day: “Neighbours are beginning to look askance when they see me in the street. They know I listen to weird music (e.g. classical music) but they think I’ve completely lost it now. Maybe they’re right.”

Day 16 Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Georg Solti, May 1974

This should be even more dramatic! Solti conducted everything at white heat. It is certainly punchy but too brisk and light on its feet. Nijinsky wouldn’t have approved. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 17 London Symphony Orchestra/ Claudio Abbado, February 1975

In early recordings strings were paramount. Here it is the LSO brass that predominates: their accuracy and agility add a new dimension under Abbado’s leadership. Due to his expert balancing, the opening of The Sacrifice mesmerises. Excitingly close recording. Verdict: Four Stars

Day 18 Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis, November 1976
A long way from the immediacy of Davis’s 1963 recording, this is not without drama but the Concertgebouw is incapable of making an ugly noise. Reverberant acoustics produce an inappropriate soft cushion of sound. Verdict: Two and a Half Stars

Day 19 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Herbert von Karajan, December 1975–1977 In his protracted remake Karajan took Stravinsky’s criticism to heart, but his attempts to be more expressive go awry. He overdoes the moulding of string phrases and pulls speeds around when the strength of this music lies in the relentless maintaining of a set tempo. Still, there are heart-stopping moments: the final chord is a knockout! Verdict: Three Stars

Thought for the day: “The halfway mark! And I am totally into it. Only 19 to go? Ha!”

Day 20 National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Simon Rattle, 1977

Baby Rattle was promoted from the percussion department to conduct his youth orchestra in this early preview of his skill. Committed playing but not in the top league. Verdict: Two and a Half Stars

Day 21 Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Seiji Ozawa, December 1979

Neither the shock value nor the freshness of The Rite is conveyed by this patrician orchestra under their bland conductor. Verdict: Two Stars

Day 22 Detroit Symphony Orchestra/ Antal Doráti, May 1981

Doráti’s interpretation remains idiomatic but more earthbound a quarter century after his shattering Minnesota recording – not that earthbound is altogether wrong. Verdict: Three Stars

Thought for the day: “I’ve heard so many now, I’m worried I’ll make a mistake. A terrible performance will impress me just because it’s different.”

Day 23 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/ Leonard Bernstein, April 1982

Bernstein was born to conduct
 this music but here he disappoints. Live recording accounts for some sloppy ensemble, but overall it’s a collection of beefed-up climaxes linked by blunt, lifeless passages. Cramped, one-dimensional sound doesn’t help. Verdict: One Star

Day 24 Montreal Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Dutoit, May 1984

Dutoit and Montreal were a formidable team in the 1980s after their spectacular success with Ravel. Though well paced here, The Rite needs more than finesse and French polish. Too shiny. Verdict: Three Stars

Thought for the day: “More than halfway along, I’ve decided to be ruthless and treat it like a military operation. I don’t care who you are: Bernstein, Haitink or Fred Bloggs, if you don’t do it for me you are dishonourably discharged. This is tough terrain.”

Day 25 Cleveland Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly, November 1985

Riccardo Chailly is definitely a man of the theatre, though it’s more a mega-stadium in this particular case. A big, committed performance all round, though the work is twice removed from its origins in the Théâtre de Champs Elysées. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 26 Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez, March 1991
Pierre Boulez famously divides audiences into lovers and haters, but I happen to be a fan. His obsession is pure music – he is uninterested in pagan ritual – but the clarity is ear-opening and he never over-inflates climaxes. Seeds of later Stravinsky are everywhere (particularly the Symphony in Three Movements). Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Thought for the day: “Ever see that movie Groundhog Day, where every day is the same and Bill Murray desperately tries to break away from the pattern? That movie speaks to me.”

Day 27 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Georg Solti, September 1991

By the 1990s there wasn’t a major orchestra in the world that didn’t
know this score backwards. The suave Concertgebouw tempers Solti’s energy, and vice versa, in this disciplined performance. It’s a shame the brass are set too far back. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 28 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/ James Levine, May 1992

Levine and his crack pit orchestra
honed their interpretation at the Met (as part of a Stravinsky triple bill with Oedipus Rex and The Nightingale in 1984). It reeks of greasepaint, theatricality and danceable tempos. Good to leave the concert hall behind. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Day 29 Deutsche Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy, March 1994

One of several distinguished Stravinsky recordings from this team; the phrase brought to mind by Ashkenazy’s reading of The Rite is “lean and mean.” The conductor sustains a threatening primordial atmosphere throughout the recording. Swift and unnerving, this one proved to be an unexpected favourite. Verdict: Four Stars

Day 30 Orchestre de Paris/Semyon Bychkov, February 1995

The Parisian wind players no longer have that crooning French sound from Monteux’s time (in 1956). Probably a good thing. Bychkov’s excellent performance is rendered nondescript by stronger competitors. Great bass drum! Verdict: Three Stars

Note to self: I own five performances that are not in this box set. Should
I give them a comparative spin too? Note to self: no.

Day 31 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Bernard Haitink, February 1995

I love Haitink’s Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams – but this neat, efficient Rite is dispensable. Verdict: Two Stars

Thought for the day: “Vaughan Williams! The Lark Ascending!! No, I must be strong.”

Day 32 Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov) Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, July 1999

What happens when you already
 know one of these discs well? A test
 of objectivity, perhaps. Anyway,
Gergiev has it all: excitement, theatricality, sophisticated musicianship plus primitive drive, and another factor missing from all the others. Stravinsky makes comprehensive use of ancient Russian chant: stylistically, if not literally, it forms the basis of his thematic material. Gergiev’s performance is uncompromisingly Russian. Verdict: Five Stars

Day 31 Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa- Pekka Salonen, January 2006

Salonen, like Boulez, is analytical
in his approach but with a deal more warmth. He leads the orchestra
he conducted for two decades, so empathy and crisp ensemble are a given. Verdict: Three and a Half Stars

Day 34 Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung, March 2007

A lyrical opening – the bassoon sings! – followed by a taut and involving performance. Unfortunately, the whole affair lacks atmosphere, especially after Gergiev. Verdict: Three and a half Stars

The Rite of Spring is now an inexorable part of my existence.
How did I ever get along without it? It’s like my daily blood pressure meds, but does the opposite.

Day 35 Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra/ Gustavo Dudamel, February 2010

As in all performances by this extraordinary Venezuelan band, the thrill factor is high. They almost have too much fun with this tale of an adolescent sacrifice. A bright, live recording where Percussion Rules! Verdict: Four Stars

Thought for the day: “Dudamel’s version (on a disc just titled RITE) was coupled with Revueltas’s Night of the Maya, a brilliant piece heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s ballet but with a Mexican accent. I must play that CD again. Now to leave the orchestras and move on to the Black and White of Spring…”

Day 36 Bracha Eden, Alexander Tamir (Piano duet version), August 1969

On piano you gain in clarity what you lose in colour. You can hear the precision behind the savagery. Eden and Tamir are cautious and rhythmically flaccid. Verdict: One and a Half Stars

Day 37 Güher & Süher Pekinel (Piano duet version), October 1983

The Turkish twins’ subtle colourings and rhythmic elasticity coax Stravinsky into the world of Bill Evans. Indulgent but fascinating. Verdict: Three Stars

Day 38 Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andrei Gavrilov (Piano duet version), January 1990

Two great pianists, both Russian, one also a distinguished conductor of the piece, produce a dynamic rendition that stands on its own two feet. (Or four hands.) Gripping.

Verdict: Four Stars

The end! Not really, because I’m
going back to check a couple of early recordings with control factors in mind. How heavily did sound issues affect my judgment? Did poor sound disguise a great performance? Answer: Fricsay is actually pretty good. Levine is better than I thought too, and Ashkenazy perhaps not quite as good – but I will leave the stars as they are.I don’t want to fudge the science on my experiment.

Best in the box are the electrifying 1959 Doráti from Minneapolis, Colin Davis’ full-blooded 1963 reading with the LSO, the exacting Boulez and – perhaps the most idiomatic interpreter – Stravinsky’s countryman Gergiev.

And what did I learn about the
music through this saturation process? Even though Stravinsky’s score is
tied to a scenario it makes structural sense out of context, which is why it
is successful in the concert hall. Many complete ballet scores don’t stand up
as concert music because they are too fragmentary, or there is obvious filling in between the main dances. But with The Rite of Spring tension builds steadily through unexpected contrasts. You can’t predict where it will go – (well, I certainly can now) – yet it has its own internal logic, like the mysterious archaic ceremony it depicts. I grew more impressed with it each day.

Even so: Day 39 – MOZART!