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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 [31:16]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, USA, 4-6 May 2011
200-Gram Vinyl LP, 45rpm, 4-sides (reviewed in stereo)
SACD/CD Hybrid stereo/multi-channel (reviewed in surround)

It is unusual for Music Web International to be sent an LP for review, and in this case an unusual LP. This recording is on two discs and plays at 45 rpm, not the usual 33⅓ rpm. Since I already possessed the SACD issue of the same recording a comparison was obvious. 

Despite the technical interest of this issue, the music is the thing, so let us start by declaring that the Kansas City Symphony was new to me. It was good to discover that they are a fine orchestra; sufficiently so to make me look forward to the next recording in this series, of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis and some Bartók and Prokofiev. Their long-time Principal Conductor Michael Stern sounds to be a very competent musician in so far as these performances are carefully controlled and very cleanly executed. However, the words 'careful' and 'Vaughan Williams' or indeed 'Elgar' do not sit well together. To my ears these performances sound more accurate than inspired. The music does not have the pulse or swing that is provided by the likes of Barbirolli, Boult or Mackerras in this repertoire. This has nothing to do with tempo because none of these performances are very different in timing from the norms established by these English conductors. What is pleasing is the presence of the complete Wasps music, not just the overture. Vaughan Williams is always entertaining and the extra movements of his Aristophanic Suite are good listening. The Enigma Variations is frequently recorded but here it seems a bit cautious, a fact reinforced by hearing Barbirolli's 1947 recording which I had to hand as one comparison. Sir Charles Mackerras actually takes longer in his 1986 recording than Michael Stern and yet sounds quicker because the pulse never fails. Stern uses the organ, made nicely present in this recording, so by the end one is somewhat uplifted. The fact that the 45 rpm vinyl requires a turnover during the Elgar does not matter because the break is after variation 9, which is a break in the music anyway.
The value of this issue really lies in the recording. I doubt if the pieces have ever been so spaciously captured in all the years since their first performances. Keith O. Johnson has another spectacular winner in the SACD surround recording. It’s detailed as well as capturing the huge acoustic of this massive auditorium. It reminded me of being mid stalls at a real concert, and there is no higher praise to come from this quarter. I would expect the company to be well pleased with their efforts. The vinyl version is somewhat less detailed and direct comparisons show that inner orchestral lines - in the 'Dorabella' variation for example - emerge much better from the SACD 5.0 track than the LP stereo, though the latter does capture the space almost equally well. Before any audiophile responds I will admit that this might vary with playback systems. What however disturbed me was the fact that the second disc, sides 3 and 4, of the vinyl set had a cyclic bump and that all four sides were slightly off-centre and thus the pitch varied. This often afflicts vinyl but at 45 rpm the frequency of the variation rises and is more disturbing to my ears. The pressings are very quiet and beautifully packaged, but for me the SACD, being just one disc, even quieter, free of pitch changes, and multi-channel, has to be the winner.
Dave Billinge  

Previous reviews (HDCD): John Quinn and Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Enigma Variations