One Movement Symphonies: Barber/Sibelius/Scriabin
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
Total Time: 62:28
Under their music director Michael Stern, the Kansas City Symphony has released several albums with Reference recordings. The most notable was a 2015/2016 release of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony which garnered a Grammy nomination for the Reference engineers. The performances of that warhorse were equally commendable and some of that same clarity and attention to detail will be heard in this latest release. This time, the orchestra steps into lesser-known territory with three one-movement works that explore distinctly unique orchestral aesthetics from a cross a three-decade span of the 20th Century. Each are intriguing blends of modernism and romantic aesthetics that result in quite different music that is still quite accessible. The selections are arranged in reverse chronological order from their composition dates.
That makes the opening a reading of Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) engrossing First Symphony, Op. 9 (1936). It comes from the height of the composer’s growing popularity in the 1930s, something that he cemented with Toscanini’s performance of his First Essay and the Adagio for Strings in a 1938 broadcast. Barber’s music is quite accessible blending romantic lyricism with modernist approaches that can be heard in the harmonic writing. The orchestral style is a delicious blend of these sensibilities and is coupled with a fine sense of dramatic shape. The work here he composed while in Rome, where it received its first performance, and is dedicated to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Rodzinski conducted it with the Cleveland Orchestra in January 1937 and again at that year’s Salzburg Festival. Still, the work has received a handful of recordings, though most all of them have been excellent performances. The piece still has a traditional four-movement structure though here they are interlinked and further unified by three themes that are the basis of the work and which appear in the opening section. There is an exciting scherzo, a gorgeous tranquil slow segment, and an exciting finale which includes a brief passacaglia and serves as a sort of recapitulation for the whole work. This performance is captured in gorgeous sound and also allows the different sections of the orchestra to really shine. Horns get their due quite a bit and the woodwinds get to demonstrate their lyrical shaping as well as technical virtuosity. The oboe and clarinet solos in the slow movement will melt your heart. The string sections also get their due adding fine rhythmic bite but also some gorgeous full romantic flair. Stern shapes those big moments well too which adds to the wonderful slow build of these moments.
The Sibelius symphonies tend to be a microcosm of the development of early 20th Century music from its romantic roots, through modernism and beyond. As a result, listeners tend to gravitate to those earlier works often abandoning interest by the time we get to the sixth and seventh. The latter, composed in 1924, was the composer’s final statement on this genre (which is interesting as he would go on to live another three decades). Some might find this particular work a proper bookend that has the Kullervo symphony at the other end—it being a work firmly in the Nordic nationalist tradition. The Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 finds us at the other end of a seemingly tired musical genre that Sibelius himself had used to challenge his listeners in works that seem to deconstruct and then put back together themes and ideas. Its earliest incarnation labeled the work a “symphonic fantasy” but that was changed to “symphony” when it was published. On the one hand there is a sense of the work wandering to explore the natural world with its seemingly random ideas that move from one to the next. It explores interesting sonorities in its orchestration which can give the work a more experimental feel. It is also rather episodic as a result and we are invited instead along a sonic journey of color and brief thematic motives that spin slowly into each new expression. Finding a way to connect these together for a coherent performance is the challenge and here Stern’s direction seems measured to allow the music to work its magic. The long lines flow finely from one orchestral color to the other and Reference’s engineering allow us to hear some of these fascinating color changes. Some of the composer’s signature climax gestures are stunning here as they bring in rich brass writing. While the work can feel like it wanders, the performance here is quite compelling with a sense of underlying joy and discovery. This is the sort of performance that makes you want to instantly hit replay.
Closing off the album is the ultra-romantic masterpiece The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 (1905-1908) by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). His experimental works are often hailed as the precursors of modern music and he lived in that fascinating transitional period that moved music through the ultrachromatic Wagnerisms into Impressionism and the new Modernist styles that would slowly begin to appear in the 1920s. The music can often feel like a richer, impassioned form of Impressionism. The later symphonies are more in line with the developing tone poem genre which Richard Strauss would explore in his own unique way. The work here is perhaps the composer’s most popular, though his music does tend to go in and out of fashion in the concert hall. Scriabin’s work was premiered in New York in 1908 with Modest Altschuler conducting it in a program with the Russian Symphony Society. But it was Leopold Stokowski who perhaps launched the work’s popularity in the early 20th Century and who was also the first to record the piece. While Sibelius’ work focuses on the exterior natural world, Scriabin’s might be said to be an essay on the inner workings of the mind with a more philosophical outlook. The different motives and ideas in the piece are presented and then are moved through a series of emotional suggestions created by often brilliant orchestral writing.
Reference Recordings has a long history of making our regional orchestras sound glorious within their unique acoustic spaces. The case is certainly made here for the excellence of the Kansas City Symphony as an important orchestra well capable of fine music making and the citizens of the region can be quite proud of what is heard here. Innovative programming allows for three quite different musical voices all of whose works help highlight the sections of the orchestra brilliantly to further encourage further listens. In the past, Reference has released some SACD Surround Stereo versions of these releases which some may wish to consider if it is available and the opportunity to enjoy it on an enhanced home system exists.