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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Wasps - Aristophanic Suite (1912) [25:18]
Fantasia on Greensleeves (1913 rev. 1934) [4:34]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36 (1899) [31:16]
Kansas City Symphony Orchestra/Michael Stern
rec. 4-6 May 2011, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri. HDCD

This coupling is not wholly inappropriate, though I dare say that some stern listeners would have preferred a meatier companion for the Elgar than these two pieces by Vaughan Williams. That said, one doesn’t often hear the Aristophanic Suite in full; if you’re lucky, you’ll just get the overture buzzing away.
The Elgar gets a more than respectable reading. Michael Stern’s take is quite relaxed as one can probably tell from the outset - from C.A.E. in fact - that the music will be presented spaciously in places, grandly in others. Stern marks the music’s punctuation points well here, and he encourages a warm sonority although the string welling lacked weight and sweep. What can’t be gainsaid is the recording quality, a real Prof. Johnson 24 bit Special. I’ve had the pleasure to have encountered other examples of his engineering legerdemain and it should be bottled. The recording has terrific clarity and spatial depth but also refinement, with plenty of detail registering. Note especially the percussion and the organ pedal note at the end, but the less showy moments, such as the wind choir passages, register beautifully as well.
The Kansas City principals are on show in this work and I assume it’s viola principal Christine Grossman who has her moment during Isabel whilst the first cellist, Mark Gibbs, is on hand during B.G.N. which receives rather a cool reading; for me it’s often the most beautiful moment in the work, Nimrod notwithstanding. Talking of Nimrod, Stern takes it easy at a tempo that would have made Vernon Handley apoplectic. I rather like hearing it this way even though it makes the music susceptible to an awkward transition at the end. The finale, however, is strongly and solidly done. In this work I must always fight to get Pierre Monteux’s recording out of my mind; his tempi and balancing have long been hardwired into me. Yet I was able to appreciate Stern’s approach even though it’s consistently more laid-back than many.
The Wasps is a lovely work. With recording quality as good as this, there’s no danger of missing the music’s strands, whether they are the harp, solo violin and horns in the overture, the deftly balanced March, with excellent dynamics, or the sturdy Entr’acte with folk-like B section. That said, the overture somewhat lacks the effusive extroversion and rhythmic incision of André Previn’s classic LSO reading. Greensleeves makes a delightful VW pendant.
This enjoyable series of performances, with their de luxe recording quality, reflects well on the whole production. You won’t look here for a first choice Enigma, but you will find thoroughly idiomatic and engaging musicianship.
Jonathan Woolf

See also review by John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Enigma variations

Vaughan Williams review index