This is the third album I've reviewed from Maestro David Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. You'll remember, either from listening to them yourself or from reviews, that the Park Avenue ensemble is composed of players who are not full-time professional musicians but rather are from other walks of life: hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, doctors, lawyers, candlestick makers). They're not amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Fortunately, once you hear them, their playing dispels any skepticism you might have about their musicianship. They are a fine group.
You might also note that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is not a particularly small group, despite their name. It's not the limited size an ordinary chamber orchestra; in fact, judging by photos, it can be over 100 players strong. However, as Maestro Bernard explains, they can sometimes sound smaller because he favors a lean, transparent sound. In any case, in the present album of works by Stravinsky, the group's size works to their advantage. Their numbers are big enough to convey the scope of Stravinsky's pieces but transparent enough to provide added intimacy.
Russian-born U.S. composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) premiered his ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, and it has rightfully taken its place among the most influential works of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, its first public performance was anything but smooth. I recall an interview with the composer reminiscing about it: He said people booed him out of the concert hall, and he had to leave by a side door, the music so outraged the audience. Today, of course, we accept the ballet as one of the staples of the classical repertoire. Theatergoers at the premiere, apparently used to elegant, refined dance music in their ballets, had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his savage, often ferocious beats describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. Nor did they understand the choreography of the first performance. The composer subtitled his work "Pictures from Pagan Russia," and one can understand why.
Anyway, in Part One: The Adoration of the Earth, we get an atmospheric Introduction and Augurs of Spring, with well-developed rhythms that never seem merely like a series of starts and stops. Still, under Bernard the opening seems a trifle hurried and not quite so magically ominous as with Bernstein. Then the pulsating sections of the pagan rituals begin and Bernard's insistent forward momentum pays off. We know from the outset this is going to be a more exciting performance than an airy one.
In Part Two: The Sacrifice, Stravinsky presses forward, quietly building the atmospheric suspense until the pulse of the music reaches a hectic crescendo. Again, Bernard dispenses with some of the more aerial qualities of the music to get on to the passion and fervor of the piece. Here, he does a fine job creating and maintaining the music's savage beats, and the audio engineers uphold their part with highly dynamic sound.
The inclusion of Stravinsky's 1919 suite from his dynamic fairy-tale ballet The Firebird makes an attractive coupling. Bernard and company bring the same sense of urgency to the performance they did with The Rite, but they complement it with greater feeling and a smoother flow. And as always the orchestra is highly responsive to Bernard's direction. I actually enjoyed the conductor's handling of the suite better than I did The Rite.
A minor annoyance: While the folks at Recursive Classics provide timings for each of the various sections of The Rite, they could have numbered the tracks. If you're looking for a particular selection, it's difficult to find the one you want without a numbering system for the disc.
Audio engineers Joseph Patrych and Antonio Oliart recorded The Rite of Spring in February 2015 and The Firebird Suite in January 2017 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City. It becomes immediately apparent in The Rite that the sound is realistically deep and dimensional, with excellent clarity and strong definition among the instruments. The high midrange can be a tad strident at times, but most of the frequency range is fairly natural sounding. Combined with a good degree of dynamic impact and a fairly wide response, the resultant sonics are impressively thrilling. The sound in The Firebird, recorded almost two years later, seems to my ears more realistic than in The Rite--warmer, rounder, softer, smoother, yet just as dynamic.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: