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
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
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.
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
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
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