• Dancing With the Park Avenue Symphony


    Symphonic Dances: Copland, Ravel, Stravinsky
    Park Avenue Chamber Symphony/David Bernard
    Recursive Classics 2061415
    Total Time:  64:28
    Recording:   (*)**/****
    Performance: ****/****

    If you are in New York City and have had the opportunity to hear the Park Avenue Symphony, you already know that this particular release is going to be an exciting exploration of three very popular 20th-Century works.  Conductor David Bernard has received many accolades for his recordings with the ensemble willing to tackle mainstream repertoire that has been the recorded realm of far more well-known orchestras.  For this recording, the orchestra is using a newly-edited version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) that Bernard had a hand in editing.  The orchestra and label released an earlier album that had the extended Copland ballet and a different version of the Firebird Suite back in 2016.  Of course, audiophiles will have their favorite performances of all these pieces so this album becomes an important way more for the orchestra to have product for sale at their concerts, but it really also allows for a wider appreciation of their performances.  To that end, this recording will certainly be treasured by those who support the rise of such orchestras in America.

    Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite opens up the album.  Bernard’s performance manages to keep the music flowing well here.  The recording sometimes creates a more ambience than one might want though.  This works against some of the crystal clear delineations of Copland’s lines.  The orchestra though moves through this work with some excellent solo playing, especially in the winds and brass.  Strings cut through this texture warming it as needed in Copland’s orchestration though one wishes it was a bit larger.  That said, with just a few places where the attacks might be more precise, one gets a sense more of what a live performance might entail.  It may not be the “best” of the versions of this available, but it has a tremendous amount of joy and energy that captures the spirit of the work.

    The second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe is among one of his more popular concert pieces.  One wants a bit more string sound in the opening “Lever du jour” to help create the sheen of sound here, but Bernard still manages to pull from the ensemble a sense of the blurred edges while primary thematic statements waft out of the texture.  All the beauty one comes to expect from the piece is certainly there.  The flute solos are certainly among the best captured for this work.  Perhaps on another level, we have here a closer sense of the chamber ballet orchestra that creates a different intimacy within Ravel’s textures that can get lost when it is performed as a big orchestral showpiece.  That makes this a more attractive performance which is capped by a thrilling “Danse generale”.

    Another attractive addition will be the new edition of the Firebird Suite (1919).  Here the delicate colors and rhythmic precision are equally important and handled well by the orchestra.  One wonders if the decision to record this was intended to improve upon their earlier exploration of the piece as well as wanting to explore the smaller details of the new edition.  Regardless, the ensemble seems to really own this work much more than the other two no doubt aided by Bernard’s quite intimate knowledge of the score.  This makes for a thrilling conclusion to this release.

    While one can find a few minor things along the way in the performances, the real issue for some will be the sound quality which can sometimes seem “thuddy” and other times has an odder balance that pops out.  The Stravinsky seems to be somewhat better served here sonically though sometimes the levels seem to fluctuate at times.  That said, it is perhaps closer to what one might experience in the concert hall and from a live performance.  Here, the Park Avenue Orchestra is on some of its finest ground yet and this release will likely be a treasure for its fans.



  • All Aboard! Railroading in Music


    Railroad Rhythms: Classical Music About Trains
    SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserlautern/Jiri Starek
    SWR Music 19401
    Total Time:  61:46
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    When one thinks about music depicting one of the great 19th Century inventions, the railroad train, the most immediate piece that comes to mind is Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923).  This new compilation from SWR Music pulls together 14 pieces of music in a sort of international musical celebration.  The recordings were all made back in 2005 and 2006.  The present release is a repackaging of that album.

    If anything, this is just a fascinating collection of pieces, many will be quite unfamiliar to even the most well-rounded Classical listener.  The music is well chosen with pieces as early as the delightful opening Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop (1848) by Hans-Christian Lumbye to music from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town.  Highlights here include an excellent performance of Copland’s John Henry (1940/52) and a host of unknown pieces from the likes of composers such as Alois Pachernegg’s Unter Dampf! Ein Zug fahrt voruber, or the nod to South American and Mexican colorists Villa Lobos (from his Bachianas Brasileira No. 2) and Revueltas (“Construction of the Railroad”).  More extended works, such as the aforementioned Honegger, also include a sinuous movement from D’Indy’s Poem des rivages, Op. 77 (“Horizons verts-Falconara”) and Hilding Rosenberg’s fun “Railway Fugue”.  Some polkas and a gallop by Johann Strauss, Jr. and Eduard Strauss also appear.

    The music is overall an infectious collection of pieces delightfully played here under Starek whose orchestra responds with equal glee.  The only odd piece is an arrangement of Dvorak’s Humoreske, Op. 101, no. 7, but it is simple one of the little extra treasures that fills out this great little program of pops-like pieces.  Also important is that the performances meet the unique stylistic shifts required for each of these works which is also an accomplishment worth celebrating.  The sound is also quite crystal clear and a bit more immediate and louder which makes it a great drive companion as you explore everything from the Paris Metro to the Coney Island Subway.