Stravinsky arranged many of his own works: He reworked “Ronde des princesses” and “Berceuse” from The Firebird for violin and piano; Pulcinella for violin and piano and cello and piano. He also wrote piano arrangements of all of his ballets, from The Firebird to Agon, for the ballet master to use in planning the choreography and, subsequently, in rehearsing dancers.
Stravinsky played these works-in-progress for trusted colleagues during the preparation of the orchestral score (more to publicize the work than to solicit feedback). Stravinsky played a less-than-complete piano version of The Rite of Spring as early as the spring of 1912 for the English critic Edwin Evans, as well as for Diaghilev and Ravel on separate occasions in the early part of 1913. Stravinsky played another early version with Debussy for the noted French music critic Louis Laloy. But these arrangements were never intended to be concert pieces.
It is said that Stravinsky himself was unaware of any public performances of the piano-duo version of The Rite until 1967. It was then, on November 6 of that year, that a young Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson performed it at a Monday Evening Concert in Los Angeles. That same duo made the first recording of the work in 1969.
In the context of the duo-piano literature – much of which consists of arrangements of symphonic works – it is easy to think of this reduction of The Rite as a stripped-bare version of the original orchestral work. But in fact, this is the original. It has already lived a life of its own. It’s not a paint-by-numbers copy of the oil masterpiece; it’s the blueprint, the foundation on which the architecture was built. Hardly a sketch, this work diverges little from the orchestral score. Of course, the piano’s homogeneity of color gives listeners an easier point of entry to the work’s complicated harmonies and polyrhythms, offering a glimpse into the mind of the composer as he crafted one of the most important works of the 20th century.