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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Tempest - incidental music (1. Introduction; 2. Act III Prelude; 3. Banquet Dance; 4. Act IV Overture; 5. Dance of Nymphs and Reapers; 6. Act V Prelude; 7. Postlude) (1861) [28:12]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

The Tempest - incidental music (1924): Prelude [5:37]; Suite No. 2 () [14:29]; Suite No. 1 [20:06]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 1-2 February 2008, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, USA
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-115CD [68:40]
Experience Classicsonline


If you appreciate contrast and shared Shakespearian inspiration then this disc will suit you well. The lives of the two composers overlapped by 35 years. I wonder if Sullivan ever heard any Sibelius and what he thought of it. It seems unlikely but not impossible as Sibelius was 35 when Sullivan died.

We hear the nineteen year old Sullivan's seven movement suite from his score for The Tempest - his earliest piece. This music is smooth, full of lissom invention and generally in the style of Schumann and Mendelssohn with the odd infusion from Massenet. Truly charming is the skipping flute figuration in Banquet Dance. The orchestra is just as successful in the light as down Dance of Nymphs and Reapers. Mendelssohn is certainly engaged in the Act IV overture. The Act V Prelude with its shivering-plodding string pizzicato and epic lassitude is another magnificent effort. The Kansas City Symphony and Stern - son of Isaac Stern - do all of this superbly. The orchestra sports a magnificent rank of woodwind principals that’s for sure.

The Sibelius score was a commission from his Danish publishers, Thomas Hansen. He delivered a 35 section work of which Michael Stern gives us the prelude and the two suites - altogether twenty pieces. This version of the Prelude seemed unfocused during the whirling conflict but miraculously clear and pleasing during its long musing descent. These are very controlled performances and more of a sense of danger would have helped the feral Storm section. Expectations raised by the delicacy of the Sullivan movements were met again for the many gentle and fairytale episodes in this long sequence spread across the two suites. I did however think that the Dance of the Nymphs remained too much in contact with the earth. It should have floated more buoyantly. The same buoyancy is however lovingly articulated for Song II with its Hispanic bounce and flow. The Miranda movement is just a little hurried but earthbound. On the other hand Stern very nicely captures the chilly, elemental and dervish-obsessive Dance Episode. This really holds the attention with its feathery epilogue into silence. The First Suite - which appears second on this disc - opens with The Oak Tree which also works exceedingly well. The recording nicely opens out the detail of the sphinx-like brass chords as much as the Chandos team did for Segerstam's DRSO in the brass hammer blows of Sibelius 5 at the close. The cool mesmerising inhumanity of the flute suggests the supernatural. Humoresque is classic ebullient light incidental Sibelius and it's extremely well done. The Reference Recordings team are at their adept and most nuanced best in the Scene (tr. 23). Its transitions from gruff stomp to filigree pizzicato fragility and tambourine pastel are memorable. The very brief Intrada returns us to the scathing and boiling power of Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony. It reminds the listener that Prospero's island is one of mystery and danger. Lastly comes The Storm; this is contained and ultimately too controlled for its own good. Against Vänskä and Beecham this version cannot be regarded as superior though all Sibelians should make it their business to hear this when they can.

The massed violins of the Kansas Symphony sometimes sound a little less than opulent especially in the Sullivan tracks. On the other hand the recording venue is very lively and makes for an extremely attractive sound throughout. Listen to the silky fade-down at the end of the Sullivan Postlude – so beautifully done.

A substantial essay is provided in English only by Antony Hodgson.

This is a fine and thoughtfully put together project. I hope we will hear more from this orchestra and conductor in similarly inventive couplings. Please continue to steer clear of the obvious. Their Sullivan is excellent and except for a few missed opportunities the Sibelius is good to fine.

Let us hope that this disc signals a rebirth of classical orchestral activity from this great original among American labels and that there will be much more from Kansas City and Stern.

Rob Barnett

 


 




 


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