• One Movement Symphonies From KC!

    One Movement Symphonies: Barber/Sibelius/Scriabin
    Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
    Reference RR-149
    Total Time:  62:28
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    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.


  • A Delightful Double Concerto with an Articulate Tchaikovsky Reading

    Tchaikovky: Symphony No. 4/Leshnoff: Double Concerto
    Michael Rusinek, clarinet.  Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
    Reference FR-738
    Total Time:  63:12
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Manfred Honeck pairs a world premiere modern concerto with one of the great classical war horses on this new “Fresh!” live release from Reference Recordings.  As the orchestra’s music director over the past decade, Honeck has continued to raise the orchestra’s profile with often invigorating explorations of classic literature and expansions to the groups repertoire.  Their series of highly-acclaimed releases continues here in amazing Super 5.0 Stereo realization.  The Tchaikovsky was actually recorded in 2016 and is the last of the three later symphonies to appear in the orchestra’s recent releases.

    Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies are among his most-performed and popular works.  The fourth (composed over 1877-1878) in particular holds fascination for its motivic development and intensity that seem to expand upon Beethoven’s own exploration of fate and destiny.  This is the third of the symphonies to make it to disc with Honeck and the PSO.  A quick glance at the overall timings for each of the movements suggests a rather traditional performance with just a slight more time taken in parts of the second movement.  What is most striking about the performance, and which is apparent from the opening bars, is the extreme care that is being taken to the shaping of themes.  One can hear parallel articulations across the sections of the orchestra.  Honeck also makes a lot more out of the sudden shifts in dynamics which can make those moments doubly exciting.  The wind playing throughout the symphony is quite exquisite as a result and that sinuous oboe melody in the second movement moves forward without too much pathos.  This allows some of the yearning to grow more as the movement proceeds.  Brass also are on great display here, especially in the powerful opening and conclusion.  The strings do well, but seem a bit lower in the sound picture, sometimes being overwhelmed by other parts of the orchestra.  This is particularly the case in the opening movement.  The second movement also seems to have some sense of balance adjustment that is not distracting (and might be a result of the 5.0 imaging).  Throughout the bass end seems particularly boom-y at times.  The scherzo really lets the strings shine with the pizzicato playfulness casting itself nicely in the outer sections and a light, trio section.  The finale brings us back to those large monolithic brass blocks of sound and crisp, shots that balance against the lyrical contrasts.  There is solid, controlled energy to get us to the exciting conclusion and Honeck lets the music play for itself without adding any additional, artificial urgency.  This makes the final minutes quite satisfying.  (There is just a brief moment, where it feels like the orchestra was getting a bit over-excited and Honeck manage to pull them back).  That makes those final moments really exciting.  Personal favorites of this symphony include Montreux’s classic Boston set, and Gergiev’s Vienna series (also a live recording).  The latter has a bit more passion (though arguably the bassoon solo in Honeck’s recording in the second movement could not be more emotionally plaintive).  Honeck’s is not a “careful” rendition, but a rather deeply thought out interpretation that draws out Tchaikovsky’s emotional core and creates a consistent performance approach across the orchestra.  In that respect, it is certainly a wonderful performance that is worth exploration and the solo work throughout is really worth the price of admission here.

    The album is paired with a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in June 2019 (when the recording was made).  A collection of his orchestral music appeared last year on the Naxos label exploring his lyrical orchestral music with its always engaging thematic ideas.  Leshnoff’s music is a link to the great Neo-Romanticists of the 20th Century (Creston, Diamond, Harris).  In this new work, he pairs clarinet with bassoon for a rather fascinating exploration of the double concerto genre.  The work is cast in three movements.  The first movement begins with long, descending string lines that shift into the bassoon’s upper, songful register.  The clarinet then enters to twine itself around this idea with some stunningly beautiful, romantic harmonic backgrounds.  A brief off-kilter waltz follows with a delightful lower bassoon staccato line to open and a nice lyrical clarinet commentary to provide a contrast.  It features a delightful section for solo bassoon accompanied with the orchestra’s bassoons as well.  The final movement brings us a more energetic dash that brings the soloists into more dialogue with the larger orchestra in a more traditional fashion, kicked off with a brass chord before the perpetual motion lets the soloists display their technique.  Leshnoff’s music is always quite engaging and the interaction between the soloists here helps create a lot of delightful interplay.  The accessible harmonic style also invites the listener in with its almost cinematic qualities.  Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek are quite superb interpreters of the work.  They seem more forward in the sound picture and imaged on either side to create a somewhat realistic spatial feel though sometimes they get shifted more to the center.

    This is an overall an excellent release.  Really, one should pick this up for Leshnoff’s delightful concerto.  The Tchaikovsky is obviously what will grab the attention of the casual listener at first, but what a great way to introduce a new work to a broader audience.  Of course, it is second on the album so it might not get that first listen it might otherwise have.  It is also rather odd that neither soloist is listed anywhere on the cover or really anywhere.  One sort of discovers by leafing through the booklet who they are and there is a little Q and A section there.  Notes for the Tchaikovsky are fine and a nice overview of this more familiar work.  Whether one is attracted to this release for either repertoire, there will be much to enjoy in both cases.