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CD Review

English Orchestral Works

Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
Reference Recordings RR-129 HDCD
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This very fine CD is about as good as it gets. Reference Recordings has long made some of the finest sounding records in the business, and this recent release is no exception. None of that would matter if the music making wasn't exceptional, but it is. These wonderfully played, entirely convincing performances easily earn a firm recommendation for anyone interested in this repertoire. Certainly there is no better performance of the suite on this side of the pond, and the "Enigma" Variations are competitive with anything out there.

Michael Stern is the son of the late, great violinist Isaac Stern, and his father's musical qualities are present whether he'd agree or not. There is exceptional warmth to these performances that make them utterly appealing. Additionally, there is naturalness too in balance here that recalls his father's finest collaborations Perhaps he downplays some of the typically "British" pomp in the marches of the suite and parts of the Variations, but it doesn't make the interpretations less satisfying. Indeed, there are some who might embrace that approach, myself among them. That doesn't mean that the climaxes aren't suitably grand or exciting, it's simply different.

The Wasps is an underrated bit of Vaughan Williams that deserves greater exposure. How wonderful that we get the whole suite and not just the overture, as it makes the disc that much more valuable. Stern and his Kansas City Symphony simply have fun and let loose, and aided by terrific sound, the results speak for themselves. The dynamic range is simply enormous and the orchestra plays with tremendous conviction. There are moments – and they are simply moments – where you feel that the playing is just below world-class, but it doesn't deter from the overall excellence. As for "Greensleeves", I doubt if anyone will pick up the disc for that piece alone. If you happen to, rest assured that it's a beautiful take on this brief fantasia. The strings are ravishing.

As for the Variations, Stern is even more impressive here. Elgar is very "British" in the best sense of the word, but his work can turn stodgy in the wrong hands. No worries here; this is a beautifully realized and seamlessly flowing treatment of a masterpiece. The climaxes thunder as they should, while the slower sections pour effortlessly. "Nimrod", arguably the most famous part of the piece, is both poignant and exceptionally well balanced. In short, everything sounds marvelous and completes a highly desirable program.

You probably wouldn't expect to look to Kansas City for English music, but so far each Kansas City Symphony release has featured it prominently to excellent reviews. This is just another feather in the cap for what is shaping up to be one of the more interesting partnerships on the American Classical scene. Great music making, great sound, and great art are all on display. Don't miss it!

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman