“One Movement Symphonies” – Kansas City Symphony/ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings RR-149, 62:28 *****:

by | May 22, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“One Movement Symphonies” = BARBER: Symphony No. 1, Op. 9; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105; SCRIABIN: The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 – Kansas City Symphony/ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings RR-149, 62:28 *****:

It’s getting rather irritating always seeming to give a Reference Recordings release five stars. I keep waiting for some slip-up, some egregious sonic catastrophe or maladjusted orchestral blunder, so common on even the “big” labels—or at least, as they were in the past. Nowadays their standard-setting efforts of yore are often trying to keep up with the upstarts of 30 or 40 years ago. Reference is certainly one of these intruders, to no ones detriment, especially as the one-time “major” labels have all but abandoned the philosophy of recording great artists and music despite the great financial hit they inevitably took compared to their popular releases. And in these days of streaming, when I dare say that most classical aficionados who care about wonderful sound still find CDs and SACDS—along with perhaps Blu-ray audio—preferable to the vagaries of internet sound systems, and like to hold the music in their hands, it’s nice to see that enlightened companies are catering to them still. This might not last forever, as technology progresses—or changes, perhaps—market forces being what they are. I don’t want to catch flack for dissing FLAC or any other competitive sound format, but gee, CDs and SACDs are still a heck of a lot easier to use!

So one is grateful that some companies are still interested in great sound, though audiophiles that will shower accolades on anything high end without considering the quality of performance—to me, always the most important thing—are deluded. Bad performances in great sound just magnify the lackluster elements. This CD under review is not surround sound, but Reference has ways outside that format of still projecting enormous hi-def audio delights. The subject matter of this disc is rather tenuous—only one of the pieces here was composed with the idea of “symphony” in mind, though the other two can be fit into that rather confined definition.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The Sibelius seventh is definitely the most recorded, with sterling examples littering the catalog. It started life as Fantastica sinfonia, though even considered as a tone poem the name doesn’t really convey the emotions of the work. The composer realized early on that the serious nature of the work demanded that it be included in his symphonic opuses, and one can hardly imagine the canonical six absent the last. Colin Davis in his Boston (intense) and LSO (beautifully played) readings are the traditional go to’s, though Bernstein’s Vienna recordings ranks with them, But I cannot for one minute even begin to dismiss Michael Stern’s effort as somehow inferior. This is a gorgeous and dramatic reading that will please the most hardened Sibelian.

Portrait of Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin

The Poem of Ecstasy, a Scriabin orgy of sound and intemperance, is certainly his best-known and most played and loved piece. Though some do consider it symphonic in scope, along with Prometheus, a Poem of Fire (often classified as the composer’s fourth and fifth symphonies), the vague sonata-form outline is not enough, in my opinion, to rank it with the first three, although a good argument can be made that even those are not really symphonies! You see the difficulties we get into with many late romantic composers. Nonetheless, this is a secondary consideration when evaluating a performance as hothouse as this one. Indeed, before first hearing this disc, I was willing to bet that Scriabin would be its downfall if there was to be one. Wrong. Even though I might still regard Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphia recording as best-in-class, this one is a scorcher, and well deserving of a new recording.

Portrait of Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

Finally, we get to the one reading that I was certain would be a good one, American orchestra and composer. Samuel Barber’s highly-cohesive Symphony No. 1 received what he called a “synthetic treatment” of the standard four movements in this one-movement work (which many also consider a tone poem—here we go again!) Neeme Jarvi and his Detroit band on Chandos is an excellent choice, along with JoAnn Falletta’s Virginia Symphony in a surprisingly adept reading. But I would be lying if I said that the Kansas City recording didn’t belong among the elite. While it is not quite as brilliant as the other two performances here, it is as good as any on the market, and the market is not exactly overrun with Barber symphonies at the moment. Perhaps the KCS will continue with more Barber in the future, one of the most craft-oriented composers America has ever produced. Coupled with the other two readings, this disc is most satisfying in every way.

—Steven Ritter

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One Movement Symphonies Stern, Album Cover

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