Sunday, March 02, 2014

Miraculous Metamorphoses: KC Symphony Hindemith, Bartók, Prokofiev

Gone forever, it seems, are the days when the major orchestras of the US and Europe churned out new recordings by the dozens every month for the great labels of the era…Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca… conducted by the giants of the time. Filling that gap are smaller labels like Reference Recordings who produce a few expertly prepared recordings each year. Lucky for all us recorded music fans, Reference has forged a bond with the Kansas City Symphony culminating in a series of well received recordings. Their newly released 4th (a 5th is “in the can”) collaboration was recorded in February 2012 at the then brand new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City.

I also have to give the Kansas City Symphony, Reference Recordings and all involved great credit for daring to record major standard repertoire pieces that often have some very heady competition. No unknown composers or works on this latest disc containing three 20th century orchestral showpieces, Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges” Suite, Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.” The program, titled “Miraculous Metamorphoses”, captures some of the best playing yet heard from the Symphony. The ensemble is crisp and visceral, lyrical when called upon combined with Stern's trademark brisk yet not excessive tempi.

Michael Stern’s very first concert as Music Director included a performance of the Hindemith “Metamorphosis” that wowed the audience. This one is even better with the orchestra's now trademark sparkling winds, burnished brass and ringing, clean percussion. One of Hindemith's more colorful and splashy scores, “Metamorphosis” can easily become mere fluff in the wrong hands. Stern relishes the driving, dancing rhythms of the opening movement (reminding us of its origins as a ballet score) followed soon thereafter by a tender and elegant Andantino 3rd movement. The liner notes describe the “Turandot Scherzo” second movement as “giving the percussion a stunning workout”. The percussion of the Kansas City Symphony are more than up to the task at hand and the sonics let the pitched percussion glow while capturing the deep resonance of the drums.

The clarion horn calls over the chattering winds in the march finale are just breathtaking simply one of those recording moments you just have to put on repeat and relish as long as you can. But do not linger too long, the mad rush to the climax is thrilling and powerful.

The Prokofiev “Love for Three Oranges Suite” verily crackled with wit and snap. The whole set is brisk and fresh and the usual clear Reference Recordings sound highlighted the often clever wind and string detail to advantage. The tender elegance of “The Prince and the Princess” movement was nicely contrasted with its more sardonic suite mates, for example the almost too familiar “March” with its absurd wit. Stern fully realizes “Love for Three Oranges” is a charming and farcical romp full of jesters, witches, royalty and magic but never degenerates into mere silliness. Far from dry and foursquare, this is a fine performance that would stand with my favorite Dorati/London or Marriner/London performances.

The violent and complex score of the Bartók “Miraculous Mandarin Suite” was breathtakingly realized by Stern and his forces aided by the stellar recording. Note, for example, the clear ting of the tambourine and the rumbling organ pedals making themselves heard through the din of the street in the opening prelude. The seduction games sections are wonderfully sleazy and decadent. The details that Stern and the recording bring into focus are instrumental in setting this mood, not just an end into themselves. The concluding “chase” fugue is bracing and quick, but not too wild, controlled brutality would be a good description. The important, driving percussion is clearly heard along with the gutsy, frantic strings bringing the suite and the program to an exciting close.

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. “Miraculous Metamorphoses'” notes by Richard Freed are intelligent and informative and also include bios of Stern, the recording crew, a brief history of the orchestra and a roster of the musicians.

Produced and engineered by two of the recording world's geniuses, David Frost and Keith O. Johnson, “Miraculous Metamorphoses” has an envious pedigree. I noted that the sound on this release, the first from Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center, is a bit dryer, cooler and less reverberant than the previous recordings in the cavernous Community of Christ Auditorium. Details abound however, most welcome in the thickly scored Bartók, and you still want to reach out and touch the instruments that seem to be right with you.

Performances that can stand with the best of them and sonics that sound fabulous even on my built-in computer speakers combine for another Reference Recordings/Kansas City Symphony “hit”.

“Miraculous Metamorphoses”
Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern Music Director and Conductor

Reference Recordings RR-132

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