• 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.



  • Classic Archival Recording with Ferenc Fricsay


    Ferenc Fricsay Conducts
    Margrit Weber, piano.
    South Germany Rundfunkorchester/Ferenc Fricsay
    SWR Classic 19070
    Total Time:  72:55
    Recording:  (****)/****
    Performance: (*)***/****

    Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) studied music with some of the most well-known composers of his native land: Bartok, von Dohnanyi, Kodaly, and Weiner.  His first appearance as a conductor was at the age of 15 when he substituted for his father who fell ill.  He would succeed him as conductor of the Young Musicians Orchestra only a few years later.  His early career almost came to an abrupt end first for his being accused of using Jewish musicians, and then be marked as a Jew.  Before the Gestapo was able to arrest him, he fled with his family to Budapest.  After the war, he embarked on a series of international engagements with performances in America with the Boston and San Francisco symphonies.  He was briefly the conductor of the Houston Symphony, a post he began in 1954 and shortly resigned from due to potential issues with US tax policy.  He would eventually serve as conductor of the Munich Court Opera.  Throughout his career he was a noted interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, and modern Hungarian masters.  Fricsay was also one of the few conductors to eschew the use of a baton.  After a triumphant concert with the London Phiharmonic in December, 1961, he was forced to step down from the podium due to complications from stomach cancer, to which he succumbed a little over a year later.  Taken truly at the height of his powers, his recorded repertoire has always been a source of critical acclaim, especially the recordings he began making with Deutsche Grammaphon in the 1950s.  Some may also know that it is his performance of the Beethoven 9th that so prominently figures in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

    This new SWR Classic release is taken from the live concert with their radio orchestra on October 10, 1955.  It was part of a series of “light classics” concerts in Stuttgart, though this particular program seems to have a few more serious works than one might otherwise expect.  It is notable for its general program, including some pieces that have sort of fallen out of the repertoire.  Margrit Weber is featured in two pieces here by Richard Strauss and Honegger.  The Strauss she had recently recorded with Fricsay for Deutsche Grammaphon so will be of certain interest to those who own, or recall that recording.  She also recorded the Honegger with the Berlin RIAS orchestra.  Those performances are part of a Deutsche Grammaphon boxed set of Fricsay’s recordings.  The ones here having been made shortly after those studio sessions and are informed by those performances with perhaps a slight edge as a result of their being in concert.  The piano is pretty overwhelming at times in the sound picture.  There also seems to be some deterioration of the sources for the Strauss, especially.  That said, Weber’s performance is still quite excellent.  The Honegger fairs better overall, perhaps due to its clean, and crisp textures.  The articulation here is very tight throughout and the music has great forward motion and a sense of playfulness.

    Of greater interest will be these performances of Ravel’s Bolero and Kodaly’s Galanta Dances.  The former as a more unusual choice, but one that balances a less familiar work by Honegger with the more popular piece.  The latter because of Fricsay’s more intimate and assured approach to Kodaly’s music which comes through here.  The album opens with a rarer performance of the overture to Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims to kick things off nicely.  The program then shifts to the two longer works, the aforementioned Strauss and Kodaly.  Fricsay evidently also liked the ballet music for Bernd Zimmermann’s Algoana and included the Brazilian portrait, “Caboclo” on this concert for a nice contrast.  It is a more acerbic exploration of extended harmony and folk rhythms (an almost languid Bernstein-esque piece).  The Ravel gives the soloists of the orchestra a chance to shine a bit more.  Here there are a few intonation issues along the way and this is where the drier acoustic is not helpful, but it does give a sense of the way Fricsay delineates and brings out lines in the orchestra, finding more connections perhaps to the Honegger performance on the album.

    Apart from the 19th Century Rossini overture, Fricsay’s is a decidedly modern “light music” program.  With the exception of the Ravel, most all of these pieces have been essentially sidelined to the periphery of concert programs.  But it also is a fascinating program of folkish pieces, post-romanticism, Les Six blends of modernism and jazz, and the last vestiges of Impressionism.  The performances are quite good, with a few minor ensemble issues here and there, but nothing distracting.  Sometimes the piano sound feels a bit wobbly in the Strauss.  The album is in mono so that often makes the percussion a bit less ambient.  Otherwise, those who admire Fricsay’s work will certainly want to explore this release.  Even for the casual listener this is a great program of music.