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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
rec. 2016, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Reviewed as a 24/176.4 download
Pdf booklet included

Michael Stern and his Kansas City orchestra have garnered some pretty good press on these pages, most recently for their SACD of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto (review). In fact, that release was a Recording of the Month in March 2021. I suspect it will feature in our end-of-year awards, too. As with others in the FRESH (FR) series, that album – and the extraordinary Pavel Chesnokov Teach Me Thy Statutes – were recorded by Soundmirror and then released under the label’s imprimatur. As good as those FR recordings are, I generally prefer the original RR ones, recorded by Keith O. Johnson and his team. If I had to choose just one of the latter, it would have to be Jan Kraybill’s Organ Polychrome, played on the Kauffman Center’s magnificent Casavant. That, too, was a MusicWeb award winner.

Since 2005, when Stern was appointed lead conductor and music director of the KCS, he and the orchestra have built up an interesting and eclectic discography. Now we have this intriguing programme, which brings together three one-movement symphonies, all composed in the last century. And while these are comparatively short works, they aren’t trifles, the vast, voluptuous Scriabin piece particularly difficult to bring off. My comparative versions of the Barber are: Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony, recorded in 1996 (Chandos); and Marin Alsop’s performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, set down four years later (Naxos). As for the remaining works, I’ve selected what I feel are benchmark recordings of both. First up is the Okko Kamu/Lahti SO Sibelius 7, part of a complete set released to coincide with the composer’s 150th birthday (BIS). Next, we have Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra’s Le Poème de l’extase, a musical and sonic spectacular that will be hard to equal, let alone surpass (Pentatone). Not surprisingly, those two releases were among my Recordings of the Year in 2015.

Barber’s First Symphony, modelled on Sibelius’s Seventh, packs four traditional movements into a single, seamless span. And while it may be an early opus, you would hardly know it, such is the extent of its craft and character. Alsop and Järvi don’t always convey that, which leaves me with a nagging sense of almost-but-not-quite. From the outset, it’s clear Stern has the measure of the piece, its dramatic arch cannily constructed, its final destination never in doubt. As for the KCS, they respond with real warmth and commitment, their playing as poised and polished as anything you might hear in Boston, Chicago, or even Detroit. Predictably, the recording is first rate, the soundstage broad and deep, every last detail and splash of colour superbly rendered. (The sympathetic and airy acoustic of the Helzberg Hall has a role to play as well, the symphony’s softest and loudest moments handled with aplomb.) Ultimately, though, it’s the conductor who deserves the highest praise, not least for the coherence and conviction he brings to this underrated work. In those respects, and in many others, Stern simply outclasses Alsop and Järvi. Indeed, those highly regarded performances now seem woefully incomplete.

With Sibelius’s Op. 105, we move from the work of a man at the start of his composing career to that of one nearing the end of his. The illustrious Finn’s final symphony is an interior, austerely beautiful piece that’s very different from the imposing, often granitic soundscapes of its predecessors. Instead, the music has a chamber-like transparency that Johnson’s ‘hear-through’ recording captures so well. As for that initial yearning line, at once lyrical and deeply felt, it’s superbly sustained, Stern and his band alive to the symphony’s ear-catching dialogues and dry, skittish wit. The KCS strings warrant a special mention here, especially for their spun-silk playing in quiet passages. Indeed, Stern coaxes his players to give of their best, and that shines through in every bar. (His unassuming and seemingly effortless approach to this great score is much to be admired.) However, Kamu and his Lahti forces have this music in their veins, and that shows, too. So, while Stern’s Sibelius 7 doesn’t supplant Kamu’s – or, for that matter, Osmo Vänskä’s with the same orchestra – it’s still worth hearing.

And now for the pièce de resistance, Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase, which I got to know via Riccardo Muti’s classic Philadelphia set, recorded between 1985 and 1990 (Warner, Brilliant Classics). These magnificent Missourians certainly get off to an auspicious start, their performance subtly scented and laced with the kind of detail other versions tend to miss. Stern, resolute but never dull, makes all the right calls here, his implacable pace adding greatly to the sense of approaching climax. Not only that, his unhurried approach allows one to luxuriate in every aspect of this sinuous, sense-sating score. And while Kraybill and the Kauffman Casavant only have a walk-on part near the end, they steal the show. Indeed, when it arrives, the moment of release, so meticulously prepared for, is simply stupendous. Make no mistake, this is a splendid reading, but the sheer abandon of Pletnev’s performance puts it in another league entirely. (I’d say that goes for the engineering as well.) Even so, I’m pleased to have both in my collection.

Stern and the KCS at their very best; top-drawer sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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