In the world of classical music, a concept album is like a senior prank. It either works, or fails entirely; there is very little middle ground. But failure is utterly alien to the folks at Reference Recordings, who've done fine work with ensembles from Chicago to Utah, and in a diverse range of repertoire. Better yet, everything they produce sounds utterly natural. I raved about the recent Kansas City disc under Stern, and this is just as good. It's also a little more adventurous, and works as a concept both on account of the rarity of the music on disc and the qualities within.
Best known for his work with Gilbert, Sullivan is getting to the point where he can stand on his own as far as recordings go. He was a serious and gifted composer, and full of the good tunes that made he and his counterpart famous. His suite of incidental music comes from a very early age, and shows an unquestionable gift for melody. It's not the most original music in the world, nor probably among the best, but it's suitably dramatic and well written. The KC musicians under Stern really are a wonderful bunch, with brazen brass and confident strings. They aren't the Vienna Philharmonic, but then the Philharmonic would probably sniff at this kind of thing, so all credit is due to everyone involved.
Sibelius is of course more famous, but I'm thrilled to be reviewing this and not "Finlandia", at least for this project. The elder Finn's scoring is darker, more virtuosic, and probably more memorable as a result. It's not music that makes it often to disc, and Sullivan's youthful energy contrasts marvelously with Sibelius' more sober tones. That isn't to say that there aren't moments of great energy and extraordinary beauty, but such is the marked difference in the two scores, that you are at once happy to have both. Again, the Kansas City Symphony leaves very little to be desired, and the sound adds tremendously to what was already a unique musical treat. I can't claim that this is essential, but I can say that literally nothing will come between you and an entirely rewarding experience. Go for it.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman