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Ralph Vaughan Williams:
The Wasps: Aristophanic Suite; Fantasia on "Greensleeves"
Sir Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations
Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony

Review By Joe Milicia

 

  RR's previous release with the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern was a huge hit among both audiophiles and Benjamin Britten fans. (RR-120, which won a Grammy for Best Surround Sound, is alas currently out of print, with used copies going for $75 on Amazon.) The British music chosen for their new disc may not be as sonically spectacular as Britten's Young Person's Guide, Peter Grimes Interludes, and Sinfonia da Requiem, but it's so superbly performed and recorded that readers are advised to snatch it up without delay.

Shortly after composing his massive choral first symphony, the Sea Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams turned to writing incidental music for a Cambridge University production of Aristophanes' The Wasps, and later created a concert suite featuring the Overture and four other numbers. The shorter pieces have their charms, but the Overture is truly a masterpiece. Who cares that this music for an ancient Greek play should sound so English, with one section very like a sea shanty and another with a sweeping melody that practically out-Elgars Elgar? (Richard R. Rodda's detailed booklet notes give a fuller background and analysis.) Stern and his orchestra give great character to every shifting moment of the Overture, beginning with the musical joke of the "sting" of the first note and the waspy snarls that follow. The horn and violin solos just before the "big" noble melody are lovely, and the "big" melody itself is given just enough room to breathe, while the section that follows sounds as if some English woodland has been visited by the shepherds of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. The more sprightly sections are full of joy and energy.

The other sections — two Entr'actes, a witty "March-past of the Kitchen Utensils," and a "Ballet and Final Tableau" — give special attention to contrasts between the most delicate woodwind and harp contributions and the assertive percussion parts (notably cymbals and bass drum). Here, as throughout the disc, recording engineer Keith Johnson and producer David Frost provide both warmth and clarity, with sharp stereo location of each solo instrument and considerable impact in the tutti passages.

I'm sorry to say that Stern's way with the Fantasia on "Greensleeves" that follows struck me as rather perfunctory, but the Enigma Variations, completing the program, is something else. In a field with many formidable entries, not least the various renditions of Sir Adrian Boult and Sir John Barbirolli, not to mention Pierre Monteux with the LSO, Stern offers a striking performance, its many memorable details enriched by the sound engineering.

To begin, I have never heard Variation I (i.e., the opening of the work) sound more halting and grieving — without undue exaggeration, I hasten to add. The outburst near the end of this section — agonized, even Mahlerian, it seems here — is all the more effective for its brevity in relation to the held-back emotion before and after it. In contrast, the scurrying of Variation II sounds quite sinister in this performance. (Granted, the first variation was intended to be "a tender depiction of the composer's wife," as Rodda reports, and the second "represents the warming-up finger exercises… of a piano-playing friend": Stern has his own agenda.) Even the warm clarinet sounds of Variation III seem to be accompanied by darker shadows, not just literally lower-pitched notes from bassoon, plucked strings and timpani. IV is more aggressive than energetic, but V's contrasts of brooding and cheerful passages are lovingly conveyed.

The other variations are likewise given characterful, though not eccentric readings; overall I hear more of a smiling-through-the-tears emotionality than is the norm. The central "Nimrod" variation is played as if in one long breath, and in other variations Stern's best achievement is in creating a sense of flow, a cantabile quality, which after all means a treatment of melody and pulse as if the orchestra were breathing like a singer. To be sure, the Kansas City Symphony strings don't have the power and richness one hears in the greatest orchestras, and the woodwinds, though very fine, don't have the distinct personalities one recognizes in the most renowned ensembles. But these Enigma Variations are well worth hearing, especially as realized by RR's engineering. Surely few listeners will fail to be thrilled by the final bars, with organ capping the thunderous conclusion of the piece.

 

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