How time flies. I just reviewed this very orchestra's 2011 recording of The Planets, but it's amazing how improved these forces are on this 2013 disc of orchestral splendor. Peter Oundjian is a very talented conductor and musician overall, so it certainly is gratifying to see such outstanding results from a man who was so popular in my hometown of Detroit. And this disc is an excellent document of an evolving partnership.
TSO Live is the in-house label of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and so far, they've been very ambitious. Composers like Shostakovich, Mahler, and Bruckner have helped shape the first eight critically acclaimed releases, and now two very different Russian masters enter the fray. In some ways, the two make strange bedfellows, and yet the coupling somehow works. The Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff find these forces in excellent form. Recorded much more openly than previously, the Toronto strings swell with a warm, singing tone. Oundjian captures the sprit of the dance effectively and excitingly, and each section of the orchestra lends character to the whole. A most promising start.
The opening of the Rite of Spring immediately showcases the excellent Toronto woodwinds, as well as Oundjian's flowing but edgy conception. Right away you can see that this Rite is going to move urgently forward. And move it does, purposefully and vividly. I love the way that Oundjian maintains contrast and maximizes color; rather than using gaudy tempo fluctuations, he pays a great deal of attention to rhythm and dynamics. Indeed, his ability to create contrast and paint a picture is superb. If I have any criticisms, it's that there's just not enough heat in spots, and like his recording of The Planets, it might come off as a touch cool.
Still, Part I is pretty spectacular, the brass blaring in world-class fashion, but never turning crude. Those strings are terrific too, and are supported by winds that leave little to be desired. Listen to the solo work in "Spring Rounds", and be impressed. The low strings could dig a little deeper there, but the shadings are as atmospheric as you could wish. The "Ritual of the Rival Tribes" takes off like a shot, but the last few sections leading to the conclusion are a little tepid. There is great playing here, but just a touch lacking in intensity.
Part II begins extremely well; a heavy emphasis on color and contrast will have visions of dinosaurs dancing in the heads of Disney fans. There is some absolutely fabulous playing to savor here, and by and large Part II comes off as more successful (it often does). The final pages of the work are especially satisfying. While perhaps not a disc to build a library around, this is easily more recommendable than any recent Rites being released by the supposed major labels. Well worth a listen, and a great way to support the Toronto Symphony.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman