by Anthony Kershaw
I remember getting ready to fly to Kansas City for a Philharmonic audition when I heard that they were no more. Dissolved. Bankrupt. Principal Flute auditions were scant in 1982 and the orchestra’s dissolution worried me that the KC Phil was one of many that were on their way out. The BBC had just closed five of the orchestras during my last year in music college and it seems the bad news was following me across the Atlantic.
That said, the hardy Kansans pulled up their socks, regrouped, and the Kansas City Symphony was born. It has been a mainstay in the Kansas City arts community since 1982.
Its fourth music director, Michael Stern (son of violinist, Issac), has secured the recording services of Reference Recordings and the amazing recording engineer, Prof. Keith Johnson. Johnson’s recordings with Reference are legendary. Audiophiles know and love them, the mainstream should follow suit.
The first Reference/KC release was The Tempest, and very good it was. The orchestra is in good shape and under the firm guidance of a good musician. The programming was unique and very well played and recorded. But, the music was not too demanding technically. In Britten’s Orchestra, we find Benjamin Britten throwing the kitchen sink at the orchestra. How did they fare?
We begin with a serviceable reading of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Well played with the orchestra under the scrutiny of a fabulous recording! Subtitled, ”Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”, this masterpiece of invention and design stands as both an educational vehicle and an English Concerto for Orchestra. The Kansans play well, if a little tentatively, for Stern. The horns, however, excel. A terrific sounding section. And they also get the rose for the recording. Listen to the harp underpinnings in the horn variation. It’s rarely heard on recordings. Bravo, Prof.
Things get more intense and focused with the 26 year old Britten’s amazing Sinfonia da Requiem. Written for, and rejected by, the Japanese Government, this three movement orchestral work follows the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead (Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, Requiem Aeternam). The work needs that firm hand I mentioned earlier. And receives it. Stern has the measure of Sinfonia and the Kansans really give him the mustard. Pow! (It begins with an almighty thwack — watch your speakers, gang.) Sinfonia da Requiem should be programmed far more often. If you don’t know it, I think you’ll really enjoy it. The recording, once again, is high end audio show demonstration fodder.
The CD ends with the orchestral Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Britten’s acknowledged operatic masterpiece. They, too, receive a very fine performance. And it’s nice to see the brilliant Passacaglia included (with very able solo violist, Cristine Grossman in the starring role as Grimes’ deteriorating mental state). Johnson’s recording is wonderful. The Passacaglia theme can be heard as it weaves its way on top, through the middle and quietly underneath the orchestra. No matter how thick the orchestral pile, the theme is heard clearly.
Tuning is excellent (flute and violins in the hairy opening of Dawn), rhythmic integrity is excellent in the chirpy Sunday Morning and the very challenging Moonlight — how can rain be so damn difficult to count?! The Storm Interlude unleashes the full power of the orchestra. Again, they let rip and give Stern a fine performance.
If you are looking for a modern CD recording of these works, this new Reference Recordings will fit the bill nicely. That said, Previn/LSO/EMI always looms large. These are definitive performances and might never be supplanted.
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Sinfonia da requiem
Peter Grimes — Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia
Reference Recordings RR-120
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