Wednesday, January 09, 2013

KC Symphony Reference Recordings: Elgar and Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
Sir Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”)

Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony

Reference Recordings RR129

On the surface a rather standard program of English music that has been recorded by practically every conductor ever active in a studio. “Enigma”and “Greensleeves” each have over 130 recordings currently listed in the catalog. “The Wasps” has not fared as well, but the Overture is certainly familiar and a frequent filler in recordings. What makes this release an event is that a “provincial” US orchestra is daring to record standard repertoire in glorious sound, challenging many classic recordings with ease. As with two earlier Reference Recordings releases, “The Tempest” (combining Sir Arthur Sullivan's and Sibelius' incidental music to Shakespeare's play) and "Britten's Orchestra" (Sea Interludes and Passacaglia, Young People's Guide and Sinfonia da Requiem) Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in a sumptuously recorded and generous all English program.

Vaughan Williams took the overture and 4 episodes from his 1909 incidental music to Aristophanes' play “The Wasps” to create the popular “Aristophanic Suite” in 1912. Vaughan Williams makes no attempt to recreate ancient Greece, but sets the play firmly in turn of the century England. “Wasps” as a play is witty and a bit absurd, thus the music follows suit. The Overture buzzes with all the vibrancy (and even a hint of menace) of a swarm of bees before launching into the swift, sea shanty inspired march. Stern takes the movement at a fair clip, faster than I am used to, but it does the music no harm.

The fine sound brings out all the pointillistic detail of the delicate march comprising the first Entr'acte. The hilarious folk song laced “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” is suitably witty and absurd, with excellent tempo choices and much good humor. The second “Entr’acte” is in Vaughn Williams' more pastoral vein with languid woodwind and violin solos, lovingly executed and perfectly recorded. Hear the sweet violin solo at about 2:20 into the movement with the subtle wind counter-melodies clearly captured. A masterpiece of recording balance. Stern's final “Ballet and Final Tableau” is a model of swaggering hijinks, absurdity and charm. Stern keeps the schizophrenic music under tight control, but lets it dance and laugh as it needs to. Some performances plow through this section, but Stern's wise tempo keeps it going without a headlong rush.

Since the recorded competition is small but mighty (Boult, Previn, Elder, in the suite plus Handley and Marriner in the overture) this all around well done performance is the one to have.

From the achingly beautiful opening flute solo from Principal Michael Gordon, through the more agitated fantasia middle section and finally the harp laced reprise of the melody, Stern's “Fantasia on Greensleeves” provides a charming intermezzo between the two larger works. Never sappy, the fine sonics allow us to hear each note of the harp beneath the canopy of rich strings. A performance that is as jewel-like as the work itself.

Elgar's Masterpiece of the the variation form Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) was composed in 1899 and immediately gained world wide popularity. The “enigma” is not so much the identity of the person portrayed in each variation, but rather what exactly is the original theme, since it is never actually played. Above all that, Elgar wrote some highly original and tuneful music.

Overall, Stern's reading is clear, well paced and thoroughly enjoyable. Some highlights are a powerful and energetic Variation IV (W.M.B), an intimate Variation VI (Isabel), beautifully blended woodwinds in Variation VIII (W.N.), a jolly bulldog-gruff Variation XI (G.R.S..and Dan the bulldog) and an evocative, colorful Variation XIII (xxx), with the Mendelssohn quote eloquently done by principal clarinet Raymond Santos. The chugging timpani, evoking the churning of a boat are stunningly captured as a texture as much as a sound.

And the ever popular Nimrod is a very model of English pomp and circumstance (I could not resist). The opening, chillingly pianissimo chorale is captured perfectly in this demonstration quality recording. Stern's Variation IX does not so much accelerate but progresses like a force of nature; the grand conclusion arrives in true British fashion with glory and nobility.. No annoying sentimentality or bombast here. The final variation, portraying Sir Edward himself is a fitting, joyous conclusion, Note the clarion clear organ pedals at the very end, which greatly enriches and emboldens the grand final chords, Maybe one or two of the great English ensembles and conductors have imbued this celebrated piece with a speck more Edwardian nobility, but Stern and KC have issued a modern challenge to the classic recordings of Sir Andrew Davis, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Edward himself.

Praise and thanks to RR for the most thoughtful and informative booklet, only in English however. Each work is vividly described by Richard E. Rodda and each variation of “Enigma” is identified and illustrated with commissioned drawings by San Francisco artist Joel Fontaine. Readable, enlightening CD booklets are almost a surprise in this day of skimpy multi-lingual booklets or no information at all when listening to a download or music service.

Double praise Reference Recordings usual outstanding state-of-the-art engineering by producer David Frost and recording engineer Keith O. Johnson.

Don't know why, but the brilliant “Britten's Orchestra” release did not stay in the catalog for long, so grab this while you can. Lovers of English music will not want to be without it..

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