STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring. The Firebird Suite (Bernard)
There was a time when The Rite of Spring put an orchestra through its paces, and the palpable effort of 100 or so highly trained musicians negotiating its jagged rhythms and metric twists often added an extra layer of excitement – something like the squeak of chalked hands on wooden bars when watching gymnastics. It’s why I still find Ernest Ansermet’s rough-edged 1950 recording with the Suisse Romande Orchestra (Decca, 5/13) so gripping. Over the years, however, the score’s once fearsome technical hurdles became child’s play – literally, as the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain demonstrated in a landmark 1977 recording with Simon Rattle (also Decca, 5/13).
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is not a professional orchestra; its members are bankers and doctors, not full-time musicians. That they play The Rite so well is perhaps not so surprising these days but is impressive nonetheless. There’s audible strain, certainly: unsteady ensemble in some passages and iffy intonation in others (particularly from the solo strings). Some sections are nicely done. The ‘Ritual of Abduction’ has a desperate energy, for example, and I like the aptly primal sounds of the winds and brass in ‘The Procession of the Sage’. But, in general, conductor David Bernard errs on the side of caution. Both the ‘Dance of the Earth’ at the end of part 1 and the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ require far greater urgency and abandon.
This recording of The Rite was issued in 2016, coupled with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s reissued here with a newly recorded account of the 1919 Firebird Suite – like The Rite, in a new, corrected edition. While The Firebird is less fraught with rhythmic and metric peril than The Rite, it requires a luxuriousness and finesse that the PACS can’t quite manage. There are some delightfully sinuous woodwind solos in ‘The Princesses’ Round Dance’ but ‘Kashchei’s Infernal Dance’ and the finale feel somewhat tentative; there’s insufficient sense of danger in the former or exultation in the latter.
For a more satisfying example of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s music-making, give a listen to their heartfelt recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony (Recursive, 4/18).