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One Movement Symphonies
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)

First Symphony (In One Movement), Op 9 (1936) [20:58]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105 (1923-1924) [22:38]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Symphony No 4 - ‘Le Poème de l’extase’, Op 54 (1905-1908) [18:52]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
Recorded: June 24-25 2016, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, USA

The pluses for this disc are an interesting programme, very well played and recorded with Reference Recordings’ typically detailed and sumptuous engineering. I find it interesting to compare two of Reference Recordings’ “house collaborations”; this one – Michael Stern in Kansas and then Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh. The two conductors could not be more stylistically different. Honeck is all about finding new ways and insights into often very familiar repertoire. In this I have to say I find him a compelling interpreter backed up by often sensational playing from his Pittsburgh players. Stern on the other favours textural clarity and a certain emotional detachment.

The last Stern/Kansas/Reference disc I reviewed was the SACD (this new disc is standard CD format only) of the Holst’s Planets which I summarised as “emotionally cool”. My reaction to this new disc is almost exactly the same. The programme is a neat conceit – three single movement symphonies written across roughly a quarter century presenting three very different solutions to the treatment/interpretation of symphonic form in a single continuous span of music. The young Samuel Barber – still in his mid-twenties – presents the ‘simplest’ answer – the four clearly definable traditional movements of a symphony performed in a compact twenty minute work. The genius of Barber’s symphony is its compactness and the succinct and lean presentation of the material. A youthful composer might be expected to write with grander, more profligate gestures, in an emotionally charged Romantic work such as this. Barber makes his musical point, themes evolve and are re-purposed. This is incredibly assured writing for such a young composer.

In direct contrast, Sibelius, almost at the end of his compositional life writes quite probably the greatest single-movement symphony in terms of the distillation of form. The extensive and interesting liner by Marina and Victor Ledin quotes contemporary writer Ernest Newman; “[The Seventh Symphony] represents the utmost in [Sibelius’] development as a thinker, in the blending of form and expression”. Where Barber writes in distinct/discrete sections, Sibelius welds his symphony together with a organic development of motifs and gestures to produce a remarkably original work but one that is clearly the conclusion of his previous exploration of symphonic form. Finally Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy is usually considered a tone-poem rather than his Symphony No 4. This is because he was pushing the conventions of Romantic/tonal harmony, rhythm and form to its limits in which any traditional handling of form is subsumed by the visionary goal. The result is a kind of stream of musical consciousness which an analysis shows comprising of logical motifs and musical subjects but which to the innocent ear is an ecstatic flood of emotions and dream-like states characterised by the names given to these themes; Strife after the ideal, Awakening of the soul, Ego, Human love, Will.

As will be clear these are three very different types of works each with a distinct and powerful personality to project. And that – again – is where my problem with these performances lie. I cannot fault the playing or the recording of the playing – both are exemplary if not demonstration class. But in true Oliver Twist fashion I want more. I want more youthful ardour and athletic élan in the Barber, more craggy moodiness in the Sibelius and just more ecstasy in the Scriabin. For anyone wanting these specific works alone without any duplication or replication, well this is a uniquely programmed disc and no purchaser by that criterion will be disappointed. However, none of these works are rare in the catalogue and in each case significantly superior versions exist. Of course there are considerable beauties and skilfully executed passages in each work. The opening of the ‘slow movement’ Andante tranquillo features a heart-breakingly beautiful oboe melody over a rich bed of strings. This is superbly played here by principal oboe Kristina Fulton [the liner lists the entire orchestra – a detail I always appreciate] with a chaste vulnerability that is quite disarming. But then Stern simply does not build through the extended crescendo that is this movement. For sure, it gets louder but without an accompanying sense of pent-up tension that the closing bars of the symphony release. Earlier the Scherzo is nimble and neat but again lacking the angular neurosis I expect to hear.

Moving onto the Sibelius, again the quieter passages work very well with the recording allowing the textures and timbres to shift and flow like elusive figures in the mist. But then the great trombone motifs that anchor the entire work lack the epic monolithic weight that makes the most compelling performances feel so inevitable. Finally the Scriabin swaps passion for precision (not that you cannot have both), and ecstasy for erudition. Again the detail and clarity of the recording makes this a joy to follow with a score but there is scant drama let alone transcendence here. For each of the works I was considering mentioning preferred alternatives but to be honest any of the well-known ‘standard’ recommendations offer more to the listener than this disc does.

The booklet is very good – well illustrated and informative. As mentioned, this is a standard format CD and I find the technical aspect of this disc more successful than the previously mentioned SACD Planets although the venue is the same. I do see that the recording was made almost exactly five years ago. These are three superb scores – each showing the special genius of their respective composers but they have all been better served elsewhere.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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