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This magnificent new symphonic recording with the Kansas City Symphony contains classic modern masterpieces by Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Bartók. It is also the premiere recording made in Helzberg Hall, in the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO. Conductor Michael Stern s interpretations of these great works have been captured in brilliant HDCD sound by Grammy®-winning engineer Keith O. Johnson. Producer David Frost has also won Grammy Awards® in 2005, 2009, and 2011 for Classical Producer of the Year. He has produced a large roster of stars and Grammy®-winning titles, and Reference Recordings is most
honored to work with him again on this project.
Stern characterizes each variation with great skill ... the eloquent cello playing in Variation XII and the superb room-shaking organ in the Finale makes this a performance and recording to relish. --Graham Williams, Classical CD Choice
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I don't know if Reference Recordings is having some issues down-converting the 5-channel surround recording to 2-channel CD, but this recording has some problems. It sounds to me like we are hearing more of what the engineers want the Kansas City Symphony to sound like than Michael Stern does. The Hindemith is more brass-prominent, with the string details very difficult to hear. But then in the Bartok, the strings are spotlit way forward (and overly fulsome) and the brass nearly disappear altogether into the distance. Are the Kansas City strings so scrawny that they need this much highlighting? It is completely unnatural and certainly unnecessary. The Prokofiev sounds the most natural here. I wish the engineers would have kept the spotlight mics turned off and their fingers off the controls and just let Michael Stern have his way with balances.
But the real problem here is the bass drum. It is miced so closely and prominently that it overwhelms the orchestra ever time it is stuck. And not in an impressive, sock-to-the-gut way that Telarc mastered in its day. No, this is a loose, flabby, boomy, over-reverberant sound that over-saturates the soundfield in a most unpleasant way. On speakers that do not produce true low bass (below 40 hz or so), this may not be as big a problem. But with true, full-range systems, this is really a problem.
And finally, with only 54 minutes on offer, there was plenty of room for the complete Bartok ballet, rather than just the suite.
With all that said, the concert is enjoyable and the symphony plays well. Stern could perhaps have produced a little more fire and energy throughout the entire program, however - everything is a bit too refined and smooth. If only Reference had significantly reduced the bass drum content in the recording, one could turn up the volume more and that might have helped project the sound of the orchestra to great overall effect. But, alas, as it is, that's impossible without the bass blasting one out of the room (and dishes off the shelves).
All in all, I found this CD a great disappointment. I wish Reference Recordings would go back to its roots: give up on multi-channel recording, and get back to natural, 2-channel sound - and quit fiddling with things.
The music is generally light and lively, and that's the way Maestro Stern plays it. Just as Hindemith maintained a healthy respect for Weber's music, so does Stern maintain a respect for Hindemith, neither over-dramatizing the more boisterous sections nor romanticizing the slower, more sentimental parts. He handles the Turandot Scherzo especially well, the percussion putting on a splendidly vigorous show. The Andantino is appropriately calm yet never so gentle as to put one to sleep. Then Hindemith returns to the lighthearted energy of the first movement with an exuberant closing March, which Stern handles well, efficiently building the excitement incrementally until we arrive at an enormously rousing climax. Fun stuff.
Following the Hindemith piece is the suite from The Love of Three Oranges by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The composer intended The Love of Three Oranges as a satirical opera, premiered in 1921 and based again on the works of Carlo Gozzi, so we get two connections between the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces--the composers meant them to be amusing and based them on works by the same earlier author.
Anyway, here we get the six-movement suite Prokofiev lifted from his opera. Once more Stern takes on the music gleefully. Maybe it's in the nature of the music, but Maestro Stern seems to have an even better time with Prokofiev's rather silly music than he did with Hindemith's. Never going overboard to make the Prokofiev sound too caustic or too absurd, he goes for a polite charm that actually makes it more delightful. The third-movement March is probably the most-famous music in the set, and Stern does it up in properly straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek fashion. It's a pleasure from beginning to end.
Finally, we get the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), and the album's theme is complete. At least insofar as concerns the "miraculous" part. It was originally a one-act pantomime ballet that quite infuriated audiences of the time, caused a scandal, and eventually got banned. Today, we mostly hear the concert suite offered here.
The tone of the music is quite different from that of the first two selections on the album. The Miraculous Mandarin is rather grim in mood, its plot concerning three tramps who use a beautiful girl to attract men to an apartment, where they rob and attempt to murder them. It's heavy-going music, dark and somber. Gone are the fun and games of the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces, replaced by an atmosphere of unyielding despair. Stern makes no attempt to glamorize a score that clearly the composer intended as gloomy, mysterious, and forbidding. At least that's the way Stern plays it, with a heavy emphasis on the mysterious angle. A lot of it sounds downright scary. The Kansas City Orchestra provides Maestro Stern with a secure accompaniment, again with the percussion section lending solid support.
It's always a pleasure listening to an album made by the Reference Recordings team of producer David Frost, recording wizard Keith Johnson, and executive producers Tam Henderson and Marcia Martin. The sound is wonderfully spacious, dimensional, and dynamic, as you would expect to hear from a symphony orchestra at perhaps the eighth or tenth row center. While the stereo spread is wide, the miking is not so close that you're on top of the instruments. Instead, we hear a depth to the ensemble, with plenty of impact and wide frequency extremes. It's some of the most-natural, most-realistic, most-lifelike new sound you'll find around.
John J. Puccio