Notes and Editorial Reviews
"This conductorless chamber orchestra has every musical strand of Stravinsky's mythological ballet literally quivering with energy. The transparent textures and razor sharp rhythms are critical in a score that is, for the most part, very subdued--but how fresh and beautiful this music is! The "Danses concertantes" receives a performance of similarly sharp focus, though it may take a couple of listenings to fully appreciate the work's brittle wit. Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic offer a beefier, more emphatic view of the "Danses", but Orpheus' inevitably smaller scaled approach works equally well in what is, after all, a very modestly scored work."
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
As recorded ‘blueprints’ of these neo-classical ballet scores, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s conductorless Stravinsky is more accomplished than the composer’s own. Stravinsky the conductor rarely enjoyed this degree of evenly matched and ‘finished’ instrumental tone, and apparently effortless accuracy of pitch and ensemble – qualities which, along with a compact sonic presentation respecting the different intensities of each instrument, expose a hitherto unattained degree of detail.
There is poetry in all this precision too; a precision of character that emerges as a natural result of so much properly achieved, and from an abundance of imaginative phrasing and nuances of rhythm from players at one with each other and at one with the idiom; for example, the delicacy, tenderness and ‘controlled freedom’ of the exchanges in the opening ‘Theme’ of the central movement of Danses concertantes, or the wonderfully skittish flute incursions in its succeeding ‘Pas de deux’. One also wonders, listening to these perfectly poised performances, whether Stravinsky’s double-edged description of Ravel as a ‘Swiss watchmaker’ might have originated from a recognition of similar qualities in himself.
The other-worldly Orpheus – the main work here – is not an easy score to bring off, the majority of it slow and chaste, dwelling in the regions between mezzo-forte and pianissimo (the ‘Dance of the Furies’ is a particular challenge to players: Stravinsky calls it ‘an Agitato in piano’). Also among the difficulties are a sustained projection of character at these low levels, and a gauging of the level of conscious expressivity. Stravinsky as conductor avoids these ‘problems’ by seeming to upgrade most of the dynamics. In reality, the restricted dynamic range of his 1964 recording is more than partly responsible for this, but there is also a degree of expressive ‘playing out’ in, for example, the beautiful ‘Pas de deux’ for Orpheus and Euridice which warms up, appropriately or otherwise, a score that can be seen as a study in Hellenistic cool. The relatively recent Salonen (with the Philharmonia on top form) is the nearest rival for this newcomer in terms of the class of the playing, the emotional temperature and the ability to project at low levels, but it comes across rather differently owing to the Sony sound stage’s deeper perspectives. Sony’s an acoustic setting that enhances the music’s evocative power at such points as the extraordinary final scene (Apollo takes Orpheus to heaven, and Stravinsky’s slow horn fugato over a chill of tone from strings and trumpet suggests ancient chanting quite as strange as anything in The Rite of Spring, and the Orpheus story as frozen in time, for all time), but which can, earlier on, render some of the brass writing too discreet.
DG’s location here is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s regular recording haunt, the Recital Hall at New York State University’s Performing Arts Center in Purchase; an acoustic ideally matched to the scale and intention of these performances and one which, I would assume, allows these conductorless players to interact as the most subtly responsive of chamber groups. Perhaps the acoustic’s compactness does bring a little ‘tightening’ of tone above mezzo-forte in the Danses concertantes, but I never found this troublesome. Salonen’s coupling is more generous, but less valuable (a professionally dispatched Petrushka with a few unappealing interpretative quirks). So, strongly recommended.
-- John Steane, Gramophone [7/1999]
Works on This Recording
Orpheus by Igor Stravinsky
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1947; USA
Danses concertantes by Igor Stravinsky
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1942; USA
Featured Sound Samples
Danses concertantes: I. Marche: Introduction
Orpheus: Scene 1: Air de danse (Andante con moto)
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