Sunday, May 31, 2015

Kansas City Symphony records Saint-Saëns

In addition to being uniformly excellent, the Kansas City Symphony can also be called “gutsy”. New releases from former recording giants New York, Berlin, London, Philadelphia and Chicago are often newsworthy events due to their relative rarity. Yet here is our local band releasing its 6th professional recording with a 7th in the future. How things have changed.

The Kansas City Symphony is also gutsy in its choice of works to record. Often, regional orchestras record works that perhaps they have premiered, have a local connection or are not exactly standard repertoire. The Kansas City recordings have featured works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Prokofiev and Bartok, to name a few, that are standard repertoire or have “definitive” recordings. This disc from Reference Recordings is a blend of the familiar and rare: an all Saint-Saëns disc featuring the less known “La Muse et le Poete”, op 132 for Violin, Cello and Orchestra combined with the popular and very frequently recorded Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra op. 28 and the Symphony # 3 “Organ” op 78. Concertmaster Noah Geller handles the violin solos, Principal Mark Gibbs cello on “La Muse” with with local organist and Organ Conservator Jan Kraybill in the Symphony. Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium.

The Organ Symphony may be the top billing on the cover, but the warmest, most vivid sonics and top rank, stellar performances belong to the other two works.

The rare gem on the disc is "La Muse et le Poète", for solo violin, solo cello and orchestra. A late work from 1910, “La Muse...” reflects the influence of Debussy, Ravel and their contemporaries with its denser harmonies, lush orchestration and rhapsodic form. Despite the programmatic title, the work is more of a spirited conversation than a dramatic encounter, though the violin seems to be the “Muse” inspiring the more reflective cello “Poète”. Both soloists are treated to many virtuoso passages, which Geller and Gibbs negotiated with poise and flair. The violin and cello are closely miked, with every nuance of phrase and tone exposed, but they are also well integrated into the orchestral fabric. Since Gibbs and Geller work together frequently as section Principals, they instinctively converse and play off each other, essential (but not always heard in performances I sampled) in keeping the work focused. This charming and passionate performance stands up nicely to the competition, notably a Joshua Bell/Steven Isserlis recording and an all French affair on Erato coupled with the Third Violin Concerto and First Cello concerto.

The “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” is a much earlier (1863) and more popular work, written in a Spanish influenced style for the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. There is plenty of competition for this always entertaining chestnut, but on first hearing this performance stands well with the rest. Geller's tone was always precise and clear. The dramatic introduction was pleading and romantic, a perfect foil for the more animated rondo to follow. His rubato in the familiar rondo theme was just right, the many double stops perfectly executed (and clearly captured), and one has to hear the violin's spine-tingling downward run from the cold, clear stratosphere to the sensuously warm and expressive rondo theme. Stern and the orchestra are not to be forgotten, albeit Saint-Saëns' writing favors the soloists, always providing sympathetic and enthusiastic orchestra accompaniment.

The well known Symphony # 3 “Organ” completes the disc's program. The orchestra chose this work to inaugurate The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts' 102 rank Casavant organ in June 2012, with Paul Jacobs on the organ, and this performance was quite similar. The Kauffman Center's Casavant is well tuned for symphonic performances, thus it was integrated into the whole orchestral fabric, not drowning out everything within hearing distance. Stern lead a stately performance, with a quite slow second movement that might not find favor with all but certainly accentuated the lushness of the movement. The organ's grand entrance in the final movement was powerful but not earth shattering; again it was more integrated to the texture. Rarely in a recording have the duo pianists' contributions been so perfectly embedded in the sonic texture, yet clear and bell like. Another “must listen” spot. Stern kept the symphony's final moments under control as well, not letting the tympani muddy everything with a frenzy of uncoordinated sound and fury. A cool-ish performance that never really took off and frankly would have benefited from a more white hot approach. Far from a poor performance, it just pales in comparison to a lot of the competition, mostly the never duplicated Munch/Boston Symphony on RCA.

Of course the renowned sonics of Reference Recordings, created by Recording Engineer Keith O. Johnson and produced by David Frost are of demonstration quality and surely the organ in the Symphony can cause some leases to be broken or at least a few knocks on the ceiling when the volume is unleashed. (thankfully none here yet at least). Best not to think of this recording as a “sonic extravaganza” (anyone remember the LP of the Virgil Fox/Ormandy/Philadelphia “Organ Symphony” recording with a cover like an 1890's circus poster?) but an example of how state-of-the-art recording technology can realistically capture the sound, texture and deft coordination of expansive orchestral forces combined with solo instruments of vastly varying sound quality and volume.

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