Saturday, June 06, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Britten Recording Concert

The number of US orchestras recording can be counted on maybe one hand. I may be missing a few, but I can only think of Chicago (its own label), Nashville, Buffalo, Seattle... and Kansas City. Notice no Cleveland, New York, Philly...once the standard bearers of US recording. Not so anymore. High costs, low classical sales, financial difficulties for orchestras.. all combined to kick the flourishing recording contracts down the tube.

Thus it was a rare occasion to attend a pre-recording concert by the Kansas City Symphony, under the direction of Michael Stern on Thursday at the huge Community Of Christ (formerly known as the RLDS) Auditorium in Independence, MO. This concert, open to the public and free, was a test run for the recording sessions going on this weekend June 5 and 6. The concert and the recording is an all Benjamin Britten affair: Passacaglia and 4 Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Sinfonia da Requiem, and the popular Variations on a Theme by Purcell also known as the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. The disc will be a future release on the audiophile Reference Recordings label.

Personally, I think this is a risky venture. The orchestra's first two recordings, a Naxos recording of music by Taiwanese composer Gordon Chin and a Reference Recordings disc of music by Arthur Sullivan and Jean Sibelius based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" featured repertoire out of the mainstream or never before recorded. The Britten selections enter a tough market, with great recordings by Steuart Bedford, Adrian Boult, Britten himself, Richard Hickox, to name a few, easily available. Reference Recordings specialize in audiophile discs, so the market for the disc is assured, regardless of repertoire.

So will the performances be competitive with the aforementioned recordings? Hard to say. The Community of Christ Auditorium is not the best for live orchestral performances. Cavernous, round, and not full of bodies (there was a sizable crowd, but the damn place seats 6,000) the sound was a bit diffuse; some sections were crystal clear (brass, winds) others (low strings especially) were inaudible. I had to check to see if for some reason, Britten excluded violas from his orchestra.. I couldn't hear them. For a recording, it is known to be quite good and managable.

The 4 Sea Interludes came off well, as did the sprightly Young Person's Guide. The Passacaglia was sufficiently dark and gloomy and certainly conflicted enough to represent the tortured mind of Peter Grimes. The Sinfonia suffered from the sound, although the arresting opening of the Lacrymosa was quite clear and powerful. The "bomb episode" in the Dies Irae was a bit off kilter and could have been a bit more dramatic. The performances may not be the preferred versions (but who knows, I did not hear the final product yet) but if anything like the live performances, they should be competitive and in fabulous sound.

As I write the recording is in the can, as they say. Maestro Stern said he was pleased, so we can only look forward to the results when released.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Don - Hey, I work with Reference Recordings/KCS & would like to ask if you would email me. Find me under press contact on the RR website. Thanks, Jan