“Miraculous Metamorphoses” = HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; PROKOFIEV: The Love for Three Oranges Suite; BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite – Kansas City Sym./ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-132, 54:45 (3/11/14) [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

This is a fine trio of modern masterpieces, and the first recorded in the new Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO, which reminds one of the Sydney Opera House building in Australia.  Grammy-winning engineer Keith O. Johnson has created a superb HDCD-encoded disc and Reference Recordings brought in the noted producer David Frost, three times Classical Producer of the Year at the Grammies, to produce this project.

Though the 1943 Hindemith score that opens the program sometimes exists as a ballet, we usually hear this symphonic arrangement, which is one of the composer’s most appealing works. He didn’t just select themes from the music of Weber, but created four complete pieces from two of Weber’s piano duets and some of his almost forgotten music for the theater.  His paraphrasing in his own particular style of Weber’s music is a warm-hearted and sometimes humorous tribute to Weber. The climax of the work is especially rousing.

Next is the suite in six movements which Prokofiev took from his satirical opera The Love of Three Oranges, in 1921. Conductor Stern has a lot of fun with this, creating a polite sort of charm.  The third movement March, which we know from the radio series The FBI in Peace and War, is by far the best-known music of the suite.  The whole thing has a sort of Prokofiev tongue-in-cheek mood to it.

The Bartok is a shortened 17-minute suite from his complete rather grim ballet. The music is intended as dark, mysterious and somber, and it is. Some of it may sound absolutely scary. It is competing against an excellent Naxos multichannel SACD with Marin Alsop conducting of the entire pantomime, featuring the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Bartok himself described the music as “hellish.”

—John Sunier