“Miraculous Metamorphoses” = HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; PROKOFIEFF: The Love for Three Oranges Suite; BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite – Kansas City Sym./ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD RR-132SACD, 54:45 (HDCD on the CD layer) [10/14/14] (Distr. by Allegro) ****:

A most interesting overall title for a program of three unusual works. I’ve always found the Symphonic Metamorphosis to be my favorite Hindemith work, perhaps because it is not all Hindemith. He didn’t just select themes from the music of Weber, but created his very own settings of four complete Weber pieces—three sets of piano duets and one almost forgotten piece of theater music. It’s from a play version of Turandot, eight variations with lots of percussion. The orchestral bells in this section have always appealed to me.

There are somewhat more muscular versions of the Hindemith work on SACD: one is the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Robert Shaw on Telarc, but in only a stereo format using the 50kHz Soundstream gear. Then there is a smashing version of the whole work together with two other Hindemith works, on a 2011 BIS SACD with John Neschling conducting the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra.

The 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi was a link between the Hindemith and Prokofieff selections here. He had written the theater version of Turandot for which Weber did the incidental music. He also created The Love for Three Oranges, which inspired Prokofieff to make into an opera. The Russian composer loved the absurd plot of the story. It’s about a young prince who is incapable of laughing, and is about to die of melancholy. In 1925 Prokofieff took six episodes of his opera and reorchestrated them as an orchestral suite. One of them, the “March,” is often used as an encore or on pops programs, and provided the theme from a long-running TV series about the FBI.

The lurid scenario for Bartok’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin is not exactly in tune with most public morals – even today, and I’ve always preferred this 17-minute suite to the complete ballet.  Bartok wrote a vivid score, which accompanies the violent and dark drama, which has some especially atonal and sharp passages in it.

Keith Johnson’s 5.1 hi-res recording captures this excellent American symphony well in both this work and the other two. It is a comfortable medium-distance pickup which is not in your face like most of the Mercury Living Presence recordings.

—John Sunier