Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)
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:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.