|Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958) The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite
[25:18]; Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:34]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original
Theme, Enigma, Op. 36 [31:16]
Kansas City Symphony Orchestra/Michael Stern
rec. 4-6 May, 2011, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence,
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-129 [61:06]
This is my first encounter with the Kansas City Symphony. It
was founded in 1982 in succession to the Kansas City Philharmonic
which had just folded after nearly fifty years’ existence. Since
2005 the orchestra has been led by their present music director,
Michael Stern. He is the son of the famed violinist, Isaac Stern,
and on the evidence of his CV and of this disc Michael Stern
is a pretty good conductor. I was very impressed by looking
at the orchestra’s website
from which it is clear that under Stern’s leadership they have
been presenting very enticing seasons for several years now.
The programmes contain an exciting blend of standard repertoire
alongside many twentieth-century works and a commendable amount
of contemporary music. These seem to be exciting days for the
music lovers of Kansas City.
The orchestra’s home is now the impressive-looking Helzberg
Hall in the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts. However,
that hall was opened as recently as September 2011 and so I
presume it wasn’t ready in time for these recordings which were
made in the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence,
Missouri, the city where President Harry S. Truman grew up and
to which he retired. I don’t know if this auditorium is used
for concerts but it
boasts a substantial Aeolian-Skinner organ, which must have
made it an ideal location for recording the Enigma Variations.
Before going any further I ought to address something on which
I normally comment towards the end of reviews: the recorded
sound. This is billed as a ‘Prof. Johnson 24-bit HDCD recording’.
I’m not quite sure exactly what that entails but engineer Keith
O. Johnson has presented these performances in exceptionally
fine sound. In a word, the sound is superb. It has depth, body,
clarity and real presence and you will hear an abundance of
detail without the slightest suggestion of artificial ‘spotlighting’.
At the very end of Enigma the orchestral sound is positively
enriched by the organ and in the last few bars the organ sound
is more telling than I can ever remember in this work; I thought
it was thrilling. So, if you buy this disc you’re in for a very
fine sonic experience; but what about the music-making?
In all honesty, the performances and recorded sound complement
each other very well. I have no idea in what shape the Kansas
City Symphony was when Michael Stern inherited it but this disc
suggests that he has honed it into a fine and responsive orchestra
and he conducts it expertly. In The Wasps the overture
has real zest in the fast music, the playing clean and crisp.
When the big, generous tune arrives (3:00) it’s warmly sung
by the orchestra but Stern’s flowing tempo keeps the music nicely
on the move. There’s pleasing delicacy in the first of the two
Entr’actes, well described in Richard E. Rodda’s notes as a
“gossamer march”. In the ‘March Past of the Kitchen Utensils’
the march itself is perky while the folksy middle section sparkles.
In the concluding ‘Ballet and Final Tableau’ there’s some excellent
solo woodwind work to admire and later on the allegro
gets a vivacious run-through. All in all this is a winning performance,
which I enjoyed very much. I also liked the performance of Greensleeves,
which shows the Kansas City strings off to good advantage.
The performance of Enigma is a good one too though
I do have one reservation. I’m afraid I find Nimrod
far too slow and solemn. I suspect Michael Stern has fallen
into the trap of viewing this piece as a memorial tribute because
that’s how it’s so often used. However, Augustus Jaeger, immortalised
in this musical tribute, was very much alive when Elgar wrote
this work; indeed, he still had another ten years to live. Stern
takes 4:22 over this section of the work and though it’s nobly
and sonorously played it’s far too slow for my taste. Just for
comparison, two admired though very different Elgar conductors
register almost identical timings: Vernon Handley takes 3:34
and Sir John Barbirolli takes 3:35 (review).
Incidentally, Elgar himself was even swifter in his early (1926)
electrical recording, bringing the movement home in just 2:52
That misjudgement aside, however, there’s much to admire in
Stern’s sure-footed reading. Variation II (H.D.S-P.)
is nimbly done while Variation V (R.P.A.) contains
some good sonority from both the strings and the brass as well
as some dexterous work by the woodwinds. Variation VII (Troyte)
is boisterous and ebullient and in view of my comments above
about the sound quality you may not be surprised to learn that
the timpani register superbly. Variation IX (G.R.S.)
is suitably explosive and I enjoyed very much the rich timbre
of the lower strings in Variation XII (B.G.N.). The
finale (E.D.U.) comes off extremely well. Stern judges
the music very well and it’s a colourful and exciting performance
of this movement. Indeed, overall I enjoyed this extremely well
played and sympathetic account of Enigma very much
and I’m sure I shall return to it with pleasure in the future.
The well-produced booklet includes useful notes by Richard E.
Rodda and the essay on the Elgar is accompanied by a set of
original miniature line drawings, one for each variation, by
Joel Fontaine, which is a nice touch. I was surprised, however,
that there’s no track-listing for the variations; that would
have been helpful.
This is a most enjoyable disc. I don’t think anyone buying it
will be disappointed by the performances and they certainly
won’t be disappointed by the engineering. These recordings evidence
a fine partnership between Michael Stern and his orchestra.
I said at the start that this is my first encounter with the
Kansas City Symphony – as, indeed, it was with Michael Stern;
I hope it won’t be the last. I see that later this year they
plan to release a disc of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses,
Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges Suite and Bartók’s
Miraculous Mandarin Suite. If they’re on similar form
for those performances and the engineering is as good as it
is here then that will be a disc well worth looking out for.