Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite [25:18]; Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:34]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36 [31:16]
Kansas City Symphony Orchestra/Michael Stern
rec. 4-6 May, 2011, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri. HDCD
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-129 [61:06]
This is my first encounter with the Kansas City Symphony. It was founded in 1982 in succession to the Kansas City Philharmonic which had just folded after nearly fifty years’ existence. Since 2005 the orchestra has been led by their present music director, Michael Stern. He is the son of the famed violinist, Isaac Stern, and on the evidence of his CV and of this disc Michael Stern is a pretty good conductor. I was very impressed by looking at the orchestra’s website from which it is clear that under Stern’s leadership they have been presenting very enticing seasons for several years now. The programmes contain an exciting blend of standard repertoire alongside many twentieth-century works and a commendable amount of contemporary music. These seem to be exciting days for the music lovers of Kansas City.
The orchestra’s home is now the impressive-looking Helzberg Hall in the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts. However, that hall was opened as recently as September 2011 and so I presume it wasn’t ready in time for these recordings which were made in the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Missouri, the city where President Harry S. Truman grew up and to which he retired. I don’t know if this auditorium is used for concerts but it boasts a substantial Aeolian-Skinner organ, which must have made it an ideal location for recording the Enigma Variations.
Before going any further I ought to address something on which I normally comment towards the end of reviews: the recorded sound. This is billed as a ‘Prof. Johnson 24-bit HDCD recording’. I’m not quite sure exactly what that entails but engineer Keith O. Johnson has presented these performances in exceptionally fine sound. In a word, the sound is superb. It has depth, body, clarity and real presence and you will hear an abundance of detail without the slightest suggestion of artificial ‘spotlighting’. At the very end of Enigma the orchestral sound is positively enriched by the organ and in the last few bars the organ sound is more telling than I can ever remember in this work; I thought it was thrilling. So, if you buy this disc you’re in for a very fine sonic experience; but what about the music-making?
In all honesty, the performances and recorded sound complement each other very well. I have no idea in what shape the Kansas City Symphony was when Michael Stern inherited it but this disc suggests that he has honed it into a fine and responsive orchestra and he conducts it expertly. In The Wasps the overture has real zest in the fast music, the playing clean and crisp. When the big, generous tune arrives (3:00) it’s warmly sung by the orchestra but Stern’s flowing tempo keeps the music nicely on the move. There’s pleasing delicacy in the first of the two Entr’actes, well described in Richard E. Rodda’s notes as a “gossamer march”. In the ‘March Past of the Kitchen Utensils’ the march itself is perky while the folksy middle section sparkles. In the concluding ‘Ballet and Final Tableau’ there’s some excellent solo woodwind work to admire and later on the allegro gets a vivacious run-through. All in all this is a winning performance, which I enjoyed very much. I also liked the performance of Greensleeves, which shows the Kansas City strings off to good advantage.
The performance of Enigma is a good one too though I do have one reservation. I’m afraid I find Nimrod far too slow and solemn. I suspect Michael Stern has fallen into the trap of viewing this piece as a memorial tribute because that’s how it’s so often used. However, Augustus Jaeger, immortalised in this musical tribute, was very much alive when Elgar wrote this work; indeed, he still had another ten years to live. Stern takes 4:22 over this section of the work and though it’s nobly and sonorously played it’s far too slow for my taste. Just for comparison, two admired though very different Elgar conductors register almost identical timings: Vernon Handley takes 3:34 (review) and Sir John Barbirolli takes 3:35 (review). Incidentally, Elgar himself was even swifter in his early (1926) electrical recording, bringing the movement home in just 2:52 (review).
That misjudgement aside, however, there’s much to admire in Stern’s sure-footed reading. Variation II (H.D.S-P.) is nimbly done while Variation V (R.P.A.) contains some good sonority from both the strings and the brass as well as some dexterous work by the woodwinds. Variation VII (Troyte) is boisterous and ebullient and in view of my comments above about the sound quality you may not be surprised to learn that the timpani register superbly. Variation IX (G.R.S.) is suitably explosive and I enjoyed very much the rich timbre of the lower strings in Variation XII (B.G.N.). The finale (E.D.U.) comes off extremely well. Stern judges the music very well and it’s a colourful and exciting performance of this movement. Indeed, overall I enjoyed this extremely well played and sympathetic account of Enigma very much and I’m sure I shall return to it with pleasure in the future.
The well-produced booklet includes useful notes by Richard E. Rodda and the essay on the Elgar is accompanied by a set of original miniature line drawings, one for each variation, by Joel Fontaine, which is a nice touch. I was surprised, however, that there’s no track-listing for the variations; that would have been helpful.
This is a most enjoyable disc. I don’t think anyone buying it will be disappointed by the performances and they certainly won’t be disappointed by the engineering. These recordings evidence a fine partnership between Michael Stern and his orchestra. I said at the start that this is my first encounter with the Kansas City Symphony – as, indeed, it was with Michael Stern; I hope it won’t be the last. I see that later this year they plan to release a disc of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges Suite and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. If they’re on similar form for those performances and the engineering is as good as it is here then that will be a disc well worth looking out for.
A most enjoyable disc. Fine performances and superb sound.
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