Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

The Bad Plus. Sony Masterworks 88843 02405 2.

It's not uncommon anymore to hear Stravinsky's Rite of Spring played on any number of solo instruments and combinations thereof. Among the best recent applications of the theory was the solo piano transcription by Jon Kimura Parker. With the current disc it's a jazz arrangement from the trio The Bad Plus (Reid Anderson, bass, electronics; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums), an innovative jazz ensemble that's been entertaining audiences with their eccentric and eclectic brand of music for the better part of two decades. This time, they try their hand at the Rite with generally favorably results.

The Rite lends itself especially well to jazz interpretations. Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote it for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where the music immediately scandalized him and, in part, the country. To be fair, the ruckus it caused probably had as much to do with Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography as it did with the music. In any case, The Bad Plus's jazz rendering brings out many of the primitive strains in the piece as well as much of its hushed lyricism.

In the hands of The Bad Plus the music takes on a more surreal air than ever. Notes seem to shimmer and float eerily, especially during the opening "Introduction," and the percussion often gives one a hint of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. We're on slightly more-familiar ground with the second movement, "The Augurs of Spring," although here the piano work seems more fluid than an orchestra might sound. The electronic background effects lend a new and creative quality to the proceedings as well, making it all appear imaginatively different while still seeming quite familiar.

"Spring Rounds" exudes a kind of Bob James aura, if you're acquainted with his smooth jazz style, as well as a certain early Emerson, Lake and Palmer vibe. So, yes, you'll hear influences of other jazz, rock, and pop artists mixed into Stravinsky's score in The Bad Plus's performance. In other words, this is an album that might appeal to a broad spectrum of music listeners.

The fact that all three Bad Plus musicians know what they're doing and have a healthy respect for Stravinsky's material helps, too. Their arrangement doesn't cheapen the music but, if anything, helps further to illuminate it. Even the men's occasional inarticulate vocal expressions tend to heighten the musical experience. And did I mention it was downright fun?

Now, here is one thing, and it's not really a negative criticism: I didn't find the same degree of unrestrained savagery in the Second Part of the score ("The Sacrifice") that I have found in traditional orchestral interpretations from the likes of Bernstein, Solti, and Muti. Maybe there are just some things a full orchestra can do that three lone musicians can't; it's hard to discount the enormous force a big ensemble can produce. I dunno. Still, The Bad Plus offer their own unique contributions to the music, not the least of which is their effective creation of mood, mystery, and atmosphere. This is a Rite worth hearing.

The Bad Plus produced and arranged the album, and Pete Rende recorded it at Kaleidoscope sound Studios, June 2013. For their presentation, Ethan Iverson plays a Steinway D Piano, and David King uses Ellis drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks. The sonics are impressively dynamic, and for just three guys they sound like a much bigger group in a fairly enveloping acoustic field. The miking is somewhat close, so expect good detail, definition, transient response, and impact at the expense of some small lack of dimensionality and air.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa