The Rite of Spring, the final and climactic offering of the New York Philharmonic’s recently concluded Russian Stravinsky festival, attracted listeners several generations younger than the average Philharmonic subscriber. Well-dressed high school and college students spilled out of Avery Fisher Hall in small groups bubbling with excitement, and soon enough they were busy texting their enthusiasms. As it has done ever since its premiere in 1913, The Rite of Spring (or Le sacre du printemps) viscerally affirmed the adolescent body and soul like no other piece of classical music, and certainly no other work of Igor Stravinsky’s. The Rite’s uniqueness, even when compared with impressive imitators like Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin or Varèse’s Arcana, baffled its own creator. It was “impossible, after the lapse of twenty years, to recall what were the feelings which animated me in composing it,” Stravinsky admitted in his autobiography. Still later in life, he summed up his inexplicable relation to his defining masterpiece with the declaration, “I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.” Had Stravinsky meant to write a different piece, one that hewed to the grim story of the original ballet, in which society sacrifices a young virgin to preserve ancient laws? No matter. The Rite’s music summons youthful energy overthrowing an old order. Roll over Beethoven.

The Rite’s special power still challenges attempts to explain the wayward development of Stravinsky’s music, and twentieth-century classical music in general. Like its nineteenth-century equivalent, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, The Rite sprang improbably from a young composer; by the time his studies ended in 1908, just five years before The Rite’s premiere, Stravinsky had written nothing remarkable. It was natural, therefore, to think of the work as a beginning, a harbinger—but of what? Stravinsky’s later music seemed written to evade the question. His pieces from the 1920s, like the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, sound either like a deliberate repudiation of The Rite or the work of an altogether different composer.

Emblazoned by the brasslike male voices of the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus and the blustering dramatic tenor of Anthony Dean Griffey, Oedipus Rex was the minor high point of the Stravinsky festival. Yet for all the dramatic force of its performance, conducted by the festival’s impresario, Valery Gergiev, the opera spoke to a different part of the nervous system: it demanded critical attentiveness rather than utter submission. The festival further compounded the question of The Rite’s place in Stravinsky’s oeuvre by offering several all-Stravinsky programs in which the works were arranged in reverse chronology. Oedipus (1927) followed Orpheus (1947); Petrushka (1911) followed the Capriccio (1929), which followed the Symphony in C (1940). The final program began with the Symphony in Three Movements (1945), followed by the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924)—and then The Rite. In every case the later works paled beside their precursors. Even more spectral were the compositions of Stravinsky’s later years, many of them written in a twelve-tone idiom, none of which Maestro Gergiev deemed worthy of inclusion. A newly released CD on Gergiev’s own Mariinsky label with the Mariinsky orchestra, chorus and soloists mirrors his selective affinities for Stravinsky. It pairs an Oedipus Rex that holds its own against competing versions with a peerless, spectacularly idiomatic performance of Les Noces, Stravinsky’s Russian masterpiece, which for too many years was performed either in French or by non-Russian choruses struggling to sound Slavic.

The festival promised to answer the conundrum of Stravinsky’s wayward development by exploring his national roots. Born near St. Petersburg in 1882, Stravinsky was raised and educated in a self-consciously nationalistic culture that gained a musical form in compositions such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’s Prince Igor. Early in life he imbibed Russian language and literature, the sound of Russian folk music and Russian Orthodox liturgical chant. He became steeped in the repertory of Russian opera and ballet thanks to his father, who sang at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera, and his musical knowledge deepened during six years of private study with the renowned composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet because of the wars and forced migrations that scarred the twentieth century, few of the musicians who performed Stravinsky’s music during his lifetime, including conductors like Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet, shared his Russian background; until recently many of his Russian-language works, such as Les Noces and Mavra, were routinely performed in French. Stravinsky, moreover, was persona non grata in the Soviet Union until 1962, when he visited the country; party ideologues branded him a “formalist,” especially for his neoclassical works of the 1920s. It was a relationship of mutual rejection that Stravinsky escalated with the anti-Soviet polemics of his 1939 Harvard lectures (published as Poetics of Music). Stravinsky’s estrangement from his homeland enforced the notion of classifying his output into Russian and non-Russian periods, a flimsy division that conceals the fact that a number of the works Stravinsky composed after leaving Russia for good in 1914 (Renard, Les Noces, Mavra, The Fairy’s Kiss, Scherzo à la Russe, Sonata for Two Pianos) explicitly draw on Russian material, and Russian-sounding moments occur in many later works.

Maestro Gergiev, the musical director of the Mariinsky Theatre, revealed his national musical vision during a public interview with Joseph Horowitz at the Morgan Library midway through the festival. Whenever Horowitz asked about Stravinsky, Gergiev responded by speaking of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky as if they were one composer. When asked to speculate on the possibility that Stravinsky might have returned to the Soviet Union, as Prokofiev did, Gergiev made no mention of the political and religious beliefs, such as Stravinsky’s admiration of Mussolini and the religious ideals of Jacques Maritain, that would have made such a move unthinkable. Instead, Gergiev suggested that Stravinsky would have flourished in a society whose limitless possibilities for large-scale operas, ballets and symphonies dwarfed the modest means of the Western European and American companies that had commissioned work from the composer. In Gergiev’s fantasy, the notoriously parsimonious, older Stravinsky, who declared that all art sprang from limitations and exclusions, might have continued to bare his expansive Russian soul as he had in early ballets like Petrushka. Stravinsky, Gergiev stated amusingly, was not a house cat, purring in your lap; he was a tiger, and the impresario was determined to unleash him.

Behind Gergiev’s view of Stravinsky as king of the cats, I detected an even broader spirit of post-Soviet revisionism. While most accounts of twentieth-century music are centered on Western Europe and the Modernist idioms of Paris, Vienna and Berlin, Gergiev envisioned a Russian century that included composers and performers who either flourished in the USSR or formed a Russian diaspora in the West. It is a plausible and compelling idea. Just consider the all-star lineup of composers (Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Gubaidulina); conductors (Koussevitzky, Kondrashin, Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky, Gergiev); violinists (Heifetz, Elman, Milstein, Oistrakh, Kogan); cellists (Piatigorsky, Rostropovich); and pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, Richter, Ashkenazy). The list would swell if it included non-Russian, Soviet-trained artists like the Estonian Arvo Pärt, or the Latvian Gidon Kremer, or musicians with Russian parents like Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. A Russian century indeed!

At the first two of the four concerts I attended, I was more than a little dubious about Gergiev’s claims about Stravinsky, and I feared a mismatch of talents. Gergiev, a powerful interpreter of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, struck me as a red-meat conductor, a carnivore ready to wrestle the Stravinskian tiger to the ground and feast on the remains. But a lot of Stravinsky is more caviar than shashlik, more delicate wit than gut-grinding emotion: pussycat, not tiger. Most of Stravinsky’s music, moreover, is theatrical; yet despite the presence as narrators of stars like Alec Baldwin and Jeremy Irons, Gergiev presented ballets and operas devoid of scenery or action, as if they were all symphonies. Another reason for suspicion was the chauvinistic chutzpah of promising Russian revelations about Stravinsky in New York City, which has been a nonstop Stravinsky festival since the 1930s, and is where George Balanchine gave so much of the music definitive choreographic form. I was lucky to have attended two previous Stravinsky festivals. The 1966 celebration at Lincoln Center, led by Lukas Foss, presented a once-in-a-lifetime cast of The Soldier’s Tale: Aaron Copland as the narrator, Elliott Carter as the soldier and John Cage stealing the show as the Devil. The 1972 Stravinsky festival at the New York City Ballet featured premieres of three Balanchine masterpieces set to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements and Duo Concertant. Could the present festival compete with those memories?

Gergiev both confirmed my doubts and proved them irrelevant. Apart from the engrossingly dramatic reading of Oedipus Rex, he seemed indifferent to the neoclassical Stravinsky. Orpheus sounded tentative, Symphony in C wilted on the vine and the Symphony in Three Movements, commissioned by the Philharmonic as a “victory” symphony, seemed poised to make a statement that never quite arrived. The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and Capriccio (the latter familiar to balletomanes as the score for Balanchine’s “Rubies”) seemed workmanlike, except for the extraordinary piano playing of Denis Matsuev in the Capriccio; he etched out the fine details in a part that usually fades into the orchestral polyphony. Gergiev seemed unresponsive to the jazz background in all these works, which, to American ears, recall the Charleston, big-band riffs and boogie-woogie. Their rhythms punched but did not bounce, and even the Ragtime movement of The Soldier’s Tale lacked any overtones of Scott Joplin or James Reese Europe, who brought jazz to France in 1918. These rhythms seemed to frustrate Gergiev’s efforts to shape the music into an expressive whole.

The performance of Renard changed the mood and hinted at revelations to come. Stravinsky composed the work in 1915 as a “burlesque in song and dance for clowns, dancers and acrobats.” It calls for four singers and a fifteen-piece orchestra including a cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer of Gypsy orchestras—altogether a large and exotic ensemble for less than fifteen minutes of music. Like many of the works of Stravinsky’s wartime “Swiss period” (the composer lived in Switzerland from 1910 to 1920), Renard is imbued with the sounds and rhythms of Russian folk poetry. I have never heard Renard sung in Russian by Russians (in this case, four star soloists from the Mariinsky Opera), so I never realized how cunningly Stravinsky used Russian vowel sounds, oos and ahs and oys, as instrumental colors. The singers sounded at once human and bestial, appropriately enough for a story about a fox, a rooster, a cat and a ram; and even without scenery or acrobats they created a raucous, cackling barnyard drama. This was Russian Stravinsky, even if it seemed to end almost as soon as it began.

The real turning point of the festival came halfway through Petrushka. Ever since I first saw the ballet danced in the 1960s I have avoided concert performances of it; like Les Noces it is a perfect Gesamtkunstwerk, with the music, magnificent as it is, being just half of the experience. Stravinsky composed much of the ballet like a film score, with each phrase pegged to a stage action that pits the imaginary world of the puppets against a bustling carnival crowd. Stravinsky drew so heavily on folk and popular melodies for the score that Russian audiences initially heard the music more as an arrangement—a potpourri—than a composition. Gergiev demonstrated how a deep familiarity with the tunes, comparable to what American listeners may experience when listening to Charles Ives, can yield interpretive intimacy. He allowed us to hear them with the ears of a wonder-struck 5-year-old. The moments when a peasant leads a bear across the stage to a wailing duet of clarinet and tuba seemed to open up to eternity. For the first time at the festival the music pulled me out of my seat.

Two famous recordings shaped my understanding of The Rite: one made me love it; the other made me dread it. I first heard the piece in 1958, when a friend played a recording of Bernstein’s version of it with the Philharmonic just after I had returned from a matinee performance of Flower Drum Song, of all things. Richard Rodgers couldn’t match Stravinsky. In retrospect it seems that Bernstein brought to Stravinsky insights that also shaped his distinctive interpretations of Haydn, Mahler and Copland; he heard the vernacular element in their music, and their exaltation of everyday sounds.

The dread-inducing performance was Pierre Boulez’s widely acclaimed DGG recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, made in 1992. Like many Boulez recordings, it was praised for the transparency of its sound, as if hearing every note was the most important aesthetic quality. Boulez, however, seemed to murder the musical impetus while dissecting the texture. He interpreted repetitions, of which there are many, as mechanically cloned replicas, rather than evolving phrases, and emphasized instrumental effects more than melody. For Boulez The Rite’s folk tunes were a regressive element at odds with abstract principles of rhythmic construction, which he heard as the rhythmic equivalent of atonal harmony. He interpreted The Rite as if it presaged, in a crude manner, his own compositions. Boulez’s didactic reading, for all its exquisite playing, drained the piece of its Russian-ness and its adolescent, daredevil joie de vivre.

At the festival, when Gergiev launched into The Rite it quickly became clear that his thoughts about the piece have evolved greatly since he last recorded it in 2001. As on the recording, which has the feel of Bernstein, Gergiev emphasized the work’s ongoing lyricism—for all its radical trappings, it really is one great tune after another—and also its anarchic impulses. But at the famously pounding “Augurs of Spring,” which erupted after the impressionistic prelude (an evocation of nature coming back to life) as the curtain rose for the ballet, Gergiev very deliberately drove the music over the cliff with a wildly fast tempo. The frantic pace fused the asymmetric accents that have long served as an emblem of musical Modernism into the more powerful, regular and Russian sound of a Russkaya, the national dance familiar from Petrushka and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Instead of foreseeing a Modernist future, the music consummated the Russian past. The orchestral texture, likewise, was opaque rather than transparent—a deep Kandinskian glow rather than a surface shimmer. The music never sounded unbalanced or dissonant or weird; harmonies became tone colors, rhythm supported melody. Boulez’s transparent trees had been transformed into a primeval forest. The music celebrated nature and humanity, not machinery. It sounded weighty yet free of all inhibitions, particularly the brass and percussion in the cataclysmic final interlude of the “Sacrificial Dance.” The marble columns of Avery Fisher Hall are probably still shaking. Roll over death metal. Roll over techno.