Britten's Orchestra Review - Kansas City Star

Kansas City Symphony shines on 'Britten's Orchestra'

The Kansas City Star

Michael Stern (seated left) during the recording of the Kansas City Symphony’s new CD, “Britten’s Orchestra,” at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence. The CD will be released Tuesday.

The Kansas City Symphony of the Michael Stern era made its recording debut in 2008 with an inventive pairing of two works inspired by Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”

The disc, featuring music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Jean Sibelius and made for the audiophile-oriented label Reference Recordings, got considerable attention not only for its sound dynamics but for its ear-opening musicianship.

Now comes the second matchup of the locals and the California-based label. Recorded in June at the vast Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, the disc, due for release on Tuesday, finds the Symphony in an all-Benjamin Britten mode. Under Stern’s direction, the orchestra again sounds terrific.

The music on “Britten’s Orchestra” dates from a six- or seven-year period early in the composer’s career, spanning roughly 1939 to 1946, or just before and after World War II. Britten was 20-something and struggling with his identity as a pacifist in wartime, as an English aesthete in America (for a few years) and as a homosexual in an unforgiving world.

It’s possible to sense some of those emotional crosscurrents in these selections, especially in the “Sinfonia da requiem” and the five pieces from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes”

But first up on the CD is the crowd-pleasing “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” It’s a well-worn but still playful bit of musical deconstruction that the composer built around what was then a 250-year-old theme by Henry Purcell.

The “Young Person’s Guide” is frequently served on record along with Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” like so much musical spinach (it’s really, really good for you). So here, it’s refreshing and reorienting to find it in more adult company.

From its opening shout, the Symphony players make the most of the work’s unity and its handoffs — from woodwinds to strings to horns to percussion. They prove especially agile and convincing in the closing Fugue, where all the instruments come back together in a celebratory romp.

“Sinfonia da requiem” is generally a much darker work, though with moments of brighter contrast, and is often considered Britten’s greatest orchestral achievement. Commissioned by the prewar Japanese government — before it joined the evil Axis — the work includes three parts, their titles drawn from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. (The Japanese apparently took that bit of Western religiosity as an affront and rejected it.)

Stern has the Symphony coursing ably through the deeply somber Lacrymosa, anchored by kettle drum and low strings; the galloping and urgent Dies Irae; and the pastoral relief of the Requiem Aeternam, pressing onward to some stirring heights.

For “Peter Grimes” Britten fashioned Four Sea Interludes and a Passacaglia as transitional music, but all meant to stand on their own as concert pieces. Stern and the Symphony make a resounding case for the group as a whole, inserting the less-performed Passacaglia between the third and fourth interludes.

The Symphony, at times sounding bigger than it is, captures the expectant and majestic Dawn; the brooding lyricism of Moonlight; the shifting, complex textures of Sunday Morning and the Passacaglia; and the wicked winds of Storm. It all adds up to a roaring adventure.

I’ve been told that these Reference Recordings high-definition discs deserve to be heard on big-boy sound systems. Alas, I’ve been listening through less than ideal pipes. But even on these office headphones, the crisp sound separation and sterling swells of orchestral expression manage to make an admirable impression.

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