We reviewed three previous Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern CDs released on Reference Recordings. All were recorded by the master sound engineer, Keith Johnson, the man who almost single handedly took the CD from the closet to the concert stage. His CDs are benchmark recordings, and the new Kansas City Symphony CD, ‘Miraculous Metamorphoses’ is no different.
Whether allowing the glow of woodwinds as they replicate the mysterious Mandarin in Bartok’s incredibly powerful and violent ballet, the muted trumpets emphasising the cynicism of Prokofiev in his The Love of Three Oranges Suite, or the decay into deep black sensuousness from the multiple percussion in the Turandot Scherzo movement of Hindemith’s wonderful Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, you’ll hear these seminal pieces anew. The recording is that good.
The acoustic from the orchestra’s home, Helzberg Hall, is lovely. Bass is very well defined (check out the opening of Miraculous Mandarin for some very deep bass) and the midrange and treble tessituras are completely in balance.
The problems come with the performances. Let’s be clear, these are perfectly fine, professional performances of exceptionally difficult pieces. Conductor Michael Stern chooses appropriate tempos and the orchestra seems to be enjoying itself. Some instrumental sections, especially the clarinets in the very important solos in the Bartok, distinguish themselves. Top class. The problems stem from the character of solos and power of the orchestra. In comparison to the very finest performances of these works, the Kansas orchestra lacks the last ounce of sophistication and the performances are too ‘careful’. As I was listening, I imagined what Keith Johnson could do with this repertoire played by the Cleveland Orchestra or the Vienna Philharmonic. For a taste, check out his Reference London Philharmonic Orchestra Malcolm Arnold Overtures disc. Pow! Wow! Oh?
Look for Claudio Abbado and the LSO on DGG for an incredible Mandarin (many people consider it his greatest recording), another LSO classic recording of Three Oranges with Dorati on Mercury and a very musical Symphonic Metamorphosis on Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Yoel Levi are all top choices. And, all still available.
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
The Love for Three Oranges—Suite
The Miraculous Mandarin—Suite
Kansas City Symphony
Street Date: March 11, 2014