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Michael Stern's Britten

available at Amazon
Britten's Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, M. Stern

(released on November 10, 2009)
Reference Recordings RR-120 | 60'46"
Michael Stern's turn at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last month was one of the highlights of an excellent stretch of concerts for the hometown band. His work as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony has been greatly admired, and he brought the same no-nonsense craftsmanship and devotion to form and balance in the Sibelius and Barber symphonies on that program. He has also been leading the Kansas City players in a series of discs on the Reference Recordings label, performances that not only capture the good sounds the group is making these days but that are potentially of interest to a broader group of collectors because they present unusual repertory in worthy performances. After a Tempest disc that paired incidental music for Shakespeare's play composed by Sibelius and Arthur Sullivan, Stern turned to three works by Benjamin Britten in this latest CD. The hollow, echoing acoustic of the exceptionally large Community of Christ Auditorium (in Independence, Mo.) posed a challenge to the recording engineers as far as how best to capture the sound. Happily, the shortcomings noted in the Tempest disc have been ironed out in this Britten release.

In terms of repertory and already existing competition, however, this is less of an easy sell. Recordings of Britten generally have to vie for collectors' interest with versions conducted by the composer himself, as is the case here. Stern leads carefully limned renditions of two of Britten's most moving orchestral scores, the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. The former is a score that is sadly not played all that often, submitted to the government of Japan in response to a call in 1940 for music to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the imperial dynasty but rejected by the Japanese because of the perception of the work's pacifist message as world war loomed. A remarkable achievement for a 20-something composer, the work's orchestrational, melodic, and harmonic palette point presciently to what Britten would accomplish in just a few years in Peter Grimes and the luscious, evocative Sea Interludes. Of the least interest is one of Britten's most famous pieces, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, originally composed for a children's educational documentary and recorded here without any form of Eric Crozier's narration. Not a must-have disc but worth a listen.

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