It’s always a pleasure to encounter - and encourage - new ensembles,
of which the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is one. Founded in 1999,
the New York-based band - led by Juilliard alumnus David Bernard -
has already made a number of recordings. I’m always surprised
at the sheer ambition of these fledgling orchestras when it comes
to repertoire; it’s one thing to play contemporary works - new
or little known - but it takes some courage to choose acknowledged
masterpieces, in this case symphonies by Schubert, Mendelssohn and
Already over-represented in the ever-growing catalogue these staples
have attracted the finest orchestras and conductors past and present,
and we all have our unwavering favourites among them. Given such formidable
competition, one might wonder if it’s brave or foolhardy to
aspire to Olympus, let alone climb it. Occasionally such hubris is
rewarded, but all too often it comes to grief in the foothills. The
Mahler, with its weight, sweep and wealth of fine detail, is particularly
ambitious for a band such as this. What of the Mendelssohn and Schubert?
The warmth and joie de vivre
that suffuses Mendelssohn’s
‘Italian’ symphony makes it one of his most spontaneous
creations, its transparent textures and infectious rhythms a guaranteed
pick-me-up. This PACS performance is certainly light on its feet,
but listening to the sprightly first movement one might be tempted
to say it’s lightweight too. The bass-shy recording, while quite
detailed, tends to reinforce this impression. Ensemble is reasonably
disciplined, although those recurrent rhythms aren’t as clearly
articulated as they might be. As for Bernard he animates the music
well enough, but for all its brio this ‘Italian’ is woefully
short on light and shade. The result is a reading whose musical and
emotional topography is somewhat flattened.
The string passage that opens the Andante
emphasises the undernourished
sound of this orchestra. In mitigation the lower string tunes are
warmly caught and tellingly phrased. It’s only later that a
curious lack of incident and a faltering pace cause one’s attention
to wander. The third movement is similarly afflicted, and for all
its commitment and energy the playing is just too anodyne. Passable
for an evening concert in your local church hall perhaps, but invisible
on a bigger stage. Yes, the Saltarello
does get a spirited
outing, but while outlines are easily discerned poor articulation
- manifested as a smearing of inner detail - is something of a buzz-kill.
There’s enthusiastic applause from what sounds like a fairly
small audience before we plunge into the Schubert. The louring strings
at the start of the first movement and those pensive pizzicati
are nicely done, and Bernard springs the music with a certain style
and rare affection. Why, then, does one feel so utterly disengaged?
Well, there’s a general lack of weight that’s not just
about numbers - particularly noticeable in those bluff, scrawny climaxes
- and a dispiriting lack of communion throughout. The ‘Unfinished’,
more so than the ‘Italian’, is horribly unforgiving of
less-than-top-notch playing, and the absence of that all-important
Schubertian line doesn’t help; without either this performance
is doomed from the outset.
There’s no applause at the end of that one, and the music fades
into ‘dead’ air. This isn’t so much a contemplative
silence as a crude guillotine wielded by the engineers. It’s
so disappointing, especially when there are flashes of loveliness
- the woodwind sound especially limpid in the second movement - and
one genuinely wishes this maestro and his band had made it even half-way
to the summit. At this budget price - the download sells for around
£7.50 on Amazon - impecunious buyers will find plenty of top-flight
versions of these works at this price or less.
Speaking of summits Mahler’s First Symphony is a strenuous climb
for the unfit or unwary, and the tentative, stumbling gait of this
Park Avenue performance doesn’t bode well for what lies ahead.
As with their Mendelssohn and Schubert the outlines are sketched in,
but that’s hardly enough when the all-important detail is missing.
The subtleties and nuance of rhythm, shape and colour are all part
of the symphony’s ‘density of specification’; sadly,
this performance doesn’t even begin to address these vital elements.
Moreover, the horn playing is often querulous, progress is fitful
and tempi are simply wayward.
Yes, there is
some charm in this reading - albeit hard to find
- but the orchestra’s lack of symphonic weight and breadth means
dynamic contrasts are cruelly foreshortened. Tuttis are untidy, familiar
sonorities are barely recognisable and the vague soundstage is a real
drawback too. Most damning of all, there’s precious little sense
of the long, arching span that culminates in a most emphatic, carefully
signposted finale. It all sounds so underpowered and unrefined, which
is simply fatal in this great symphony. Indeed, these three performances,
which show promise in parts, simply don’t measure up the high
technical and interpretive standards to which we’ve become accustomed
- even from the better student and semi-professional ensembles.
Strictly for the orchestra’s friends and devotees.
Masterwork Index: Mahler