Saturday, November 07, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Britten's Orchestra

OK I admit I was worried over nothing.

The Kansas City Symphony and Music Director Michael Stern have been involved in 3 recordings since Stern's arrival here in 2005. The first ones were for Naxos and compositions by the heretofore unknown (at least in the USA) Taiwanese composer Gordon Chin. The second was a recording of some lesser known Arthur Sullivan and Jan Sibelius music based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" done for Reference Recordings. Both garnered excellent reviews, but of course had little major competition.

But with the latest recording, Stern, the Orchestra and Reference Recordings plunged head first into the mainstream repertoire with some of the most popular and frequently recorded works by Benjamin Britten. The competition was formidable, including the composer's indispensable recordings, excellent readings by Britten specialist Steuart Bedford and on to Bernstein, Bolt and Handley to name a few. Frankly, I was concerned that maybe, just maybe, the orchestra was not ready for the cutthroat competition of prime time.

Shame on me.

With fabulous sonics (we used to call recordings like this "lease breakers") and impressive and quite competitive performances, this recording is a winner.

The usually excellent winds of the orchestra are captured in all their fleet glory. The strings are full and with fine intonation, the brass snarl and snap, the percussion rock the house (I think my speakers are shot from all the pounding, and this at a low volume!) and thus the ensemble comes together as a satisfying whole. Some of this is due to the incredible Reference Recording engineers who manage to tame the cavernous space of the Community of Christ Auditorium (aka the LDS Auditorium). But much is due to the excellent orchestra Stern has assembled and to his vision and leadership.

The "Variations on a Theme of Purcell" or more famous as "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" featured uniformly outstanding work from the various orchestral groups, the woodwinds of special note. This was not a light, kid friendly reading but a powerful and well formed performance of this marvelous work.

One of my favorite Britten pieces, Sinfonia da Requiem, receives a lyrical, somewhat cool performance that fits the music well. The opening movement's "Lacrymosa" explosive beginning is stunningly captured as are the steady, powerful base drum beats. The crystal clear sonics and Stern's attention to detail allow you to actually hear the subtle sforzandi in each phrase near the end of the movement immediately after the big drum climax.... spectacular! The slowly fading ending of the "Requiem Aeternam" benefits from the sharp, spotlit sonics. The "Dies Irae" movement may not be a pants wetting experience (a reference from my chorus days when a choral director told us we were singing the Day of Wrath, NOT the "Dies Meh" and that he hoped that we would make the audience pee their pants in fear), but is certainly powerful and dramatic.

The 4 Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes are top notch as well. From a misty, nautical tinged "Dawn", a bustling but somewhat unsettling "Sunday Morning", a dark and forbidding "Moonlight", concluding with a powerful "Storm" these "Interludes" give little away to the competition.

Stern, somewhat unusually, interpolates the "Passacaglia" from Peter Grimes between "Moonlight" and "Storm", which in my opinion works quite well.

In this case, I loved being proved wrong. This is an excellent recording and stands proudly along those mentioned above.

Reference Recordings RR120 released November 10th and available from most all the online and local retailers and direct from Reference Recordings.

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