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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 (1863) [9:32]
La muse et le poète, Op. 132 (1910) [16:25]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 Organ (1886) [35:33]
Noah Geller (violin), Mark Gibbs (cello), Jan Kraybill (organ)
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 2013, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-136HDCD [61:26]

This label's on a roll. Their recent Bruckner Fourth with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony has had excellent reviews on this site and elsewhere, but it’s their Organ Polychrome that deserves the highest praise of all. In fact the latter, with Jan Kraybill playing the newly installed Casavant Frères instrument featured here, was one of my top picks for 2014. Hardly surprising, then, that I was impatient to hear this trio of showpieces by Saint-Saëns. As with Organ Polychrome this new recording is engineered by the highly regarded ‘Prof’ Keith O. Johnson.

With the exception of Kraybill all the performers here are new to me. The Kansas City Symphony, formed after the dissolution of the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1982, is led by music director Michael Stern. The KCS are based in the splendid Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The violinist Noah Geller, appointed concertmaster in 2012, is the soloist in Op. 28; he's joined in Op. 132 by Mark Gibbs, the orchestra’s principal cello. Typical of most RR releases this one uses the HDCD encode/decode system, which is not widely supported; however, these are hybrid discs, compatible with standard CD and universal players.

I suspect the big draw here is the Organ Symphony which, if the number of new recordings is anything to go by, is as popular as ever. It’s a staple I’ve known for forty years or more, and it seldom fails to please. Listeners of a similar vintage probably remember the rather fine Louis Frémaux/CBSO recording on CfP – my introduction to the piece – not to mention Daniel Barenboim barnstormer with the Chicago Symphony on Universal. There have been countless versions since, of which Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s with the London Philharmonic is one of the most satisfying (review).

First, the fillers. Saint-Saëns wrote the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. It’s a dazzler, which is why the best fiddlers – from Campoli, Francescati, Grumiaux and Heifetz to Chung, Ehnes and Hahn – have all taken it up. Undaunted Noah Geller sallies forth, warm of tone and generous of spirit. He’s placed quite far forward, but not distractingly so, and the orchestra has just enough presence to ensure those punctuating tuttis aren’t overbearing. Overall, the performance is about feelings rather than firewroks. Rhythms are taut and Stern keeps it all moving along nicely.

Even more alluring is the symphonic poem La muse et le poète, a kind of double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. The recording captures the ravishing timbres of Gibbs’ instrument very well indeed; there’s real personality to the playing of both soloists, and the orchestra prove to be delightful, if rather discreet, accompanists. The KCS may not be among America’s elite ensembles, but there are times in this piece when their playing would melt the iciest of hearts. Moreover, there’s a chamber-like intensity to the music-making, a sense of give and take, that I find most appealing.

So, an engaging start to this disc. The pièce de resistance, the Organ Symphony, is rather longer and more expansive; it’s also a much more difficult work to bring off, both musically and sonically. Finding a realistic balance between orchestra and organ is the biggest challenge. The Barenboim recording – superb on LP, decent on CD and fabulous as a high-res download – splices in the organ of Chartres cathedral; the effect is unforgettable. Alas, some recordings, such as the Seattle Symphony one on SSM, get it spectacularly wrong. As for Leonard Slatkin's Naxos outing it's had mixed reviews; I found it measured - even prosaic - and the organ is too subdued for my tastes. Nézet-Séguin gets the mood, architecture and instrumental balance just about right.

Stern and his doughty band may deliver a safe, middle-of-the-road account of the symphony, but it’s a very musical one. Tempi are well judged and the organ’s first entry has a low-key loveliness that segues perfectly with the proportions of this performance as a whole. The singing sign-off to the first half is most beautifully done and the second has plenty of animation and attack. The pianos are realistically balanced, but a little more air around the orchestra and a firmer, less boomy bass would have been welcome. These are fairly minor caveats that don't detract from Stern's sensibly calibrated approach to the piece.

'Safe' and 'middle-of-the-road' aren't tags I'd expect to use in the context of this great symphony, but at least this isn't one of those big, blowsy performances that bloats the score. Always tasteful, Jraybill certainly adds majesty to the mix as the finale hoves into view. Happily the orchestra don’t sink beneath the waves – as they are wont to do - while the bass drum and cymbals are superbly rendered. Stern surges ahead just before we make landfall, and the effect – if somewhat contrived - is undeniably exciting. The closing pages are grand and glorious, the noble Casavant as secure and spacious as one could wish.

These are all fine performances which, given at a concert, would have left me in good spirits for the journey home. However, as a recording - with the possibility of multiple auditions - this album lacks the magnetic appeal of its finest rivals. Perhaps the fillers need more zing, and the symphony could do with an element of risk taking; also, the sound, while very good, isn't the quantum leap one might expect from this team. I wouldn’t want to be without the Barenboim, a pre-digital recording that can still give your woofers a workout; nor would I wish to part with the Nézet-Séguin, which offers a most refreshing take on this oft-played piece.

Decent performances, well recorded; alas, not the tour de force I’d hoped for.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Another review ...

This is the third recording by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony that has come my way. Previously I found a good deal to enjoy in a disc devoted to Vaughan Williams and Elgar (review) and then in a programme entitled Miraculous Metamorphoses (review). That latter disc was set down in the orchestra’s new home (since September, 2011), the Helzberg Hall in the $400m Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City. The new hall boasts a substantial organ and I suppose it was inevitable that the orchestra, and Reference Recordings, should seek an early opportunity to showcase that instrument. The Saint-Saëns symphony proves an ideal vehicle.

Before we hear that, however, Stern offers two of the orchestra’s principal players a turn in the spotlight. Concertmaster Noah Geller is the soloist in the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, one of the works that Saint-Saëns wrote for his virtuoso friend, Pablo de Sarasate. This is a very pleasing piece and it’s deservedly popular. Geller, who took up his post in Kansas City in 2012, joining from the Philadelphia Orchestra, is an excellent soloist. He’s quite forwardly balanced on this recording but not objectionably so and the excellent support from his colleagues is clearly audible. Geller’s tone is attractively clear yet also warm and when he plays in the higher reaches of his instrument he produces a silvery sound. He offers poetry in the Introduction and then, when the music becomes livelier his playing is spirited. I enjoyed this very much.

That piece is well-known but its companion on this disc is much less familiar; I had never heard it. For La muse et la poète Geller is joined by Mark Gibbs, who has been the orchestra’s principal cellist since 1999. In this work the violin represents the muse while the cello is the poet. As annotator Richard Freed comments, the piece contains elements of both a double concerto and a symphonic poem. It’s agreeable, though I don’t find it as memorable as the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. The solo writing may not contain musical pyrotechnics but it offers plenty of opportunities for the soloists to shine and these are well exploited by these gifted players. I’m glad Stern included this piece.

So to the symphony and an opportunity to hear the Helzberg Hall’s organ being put through its paces. The instrument was built by the Quebec firm, Casavant Frères. It boasts four manuals, 79 stops and 5,548 pipes. Saint-Saëns only deploys the organ in the second and fourth movements so we have to wait a while to hear it.

At the very start Stern and his players convey an air of expectation. When the Allegro moderato is reached the performance becomes lithe. There’s a pleasing warmth to the orchestral sound but at the same time there’s plenty of definition. The sound seems very natural and the tuttis register impressively. I thought it would be interesting to compare this CD with the Naxos BD-A version, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, which I reviewed not long ago. When I sampled identical passages in sequence I found that though the Slatkin is in the supposedly superior BD-A format the Stern CD recording lost nothing in comparison. Indeed, on my equipment it seemed that the Stern had the edge, certainly when it came to warmth of sound.

The richness of the Kansas City strings is seductive in the opening pages of the second movement. Partly this may be down to the recording but I feel they sing with more overt warmth than does Slatkin’s Lyon string choir. Stern’s orchestra produces cultivated playing in this movement and Stern captures the spirit of the music in a way that seems just right to me. The organ, used with commendable restraint by Saint-Saëns, adds depth to the orchestral sound. This is a delectable performance and it’s followed by a sparkling traversal of the third movement in which the orchestral playing is deft.

Then, as the finale begins, the organ really comes into its own. The opening chord is truly majestic; Jan Kraybill produces a big, rhetorical sound from the organ but one that is not overblown. The sound of the organ on the Slatkin disc is very good but it’s not as arresting as the contribution of the Kansas City instrument. There’s another telling difference too. After the imposing opening the strings announce the big tune. This is punctuated two or three times by discreet organ chords. In the Stern performance these chords register in an ideal fashion; they’re not obtrusive but one can hear them clearly. In the Slatkin performance the chords are virtually inaudible. At 1:13 when Jan Kraybill reprises the tune fortissimo the effect is tremendous. Stern’s account of the finale is exciting and enjoyable. Towards the end he and his musicians invest the music with a mixture of splendour and energy and the final bars have genuine grandeur. As a performance Stern may not efface memories of the flamboyant Charles Munch/Boston Symphony account (review), though I’ve never heard the SACD version of this famous recording. However, I prefer Stern to Slatkin, both in musical and audio terms.

When this Reference Recording was auditioned recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio my colleagues and I were very impressed. I got equally satisfying results on my own equipment. I should also say that the notes by Richard Freed are very good.

The playing time of this disc is not over-generous but it’s a fine release and I think that anyone buying it will enjoy it very much.

John Quinn