This is the second Reference Recordings orchestral release from the Kansas City Symphony, now the label's "house band" replacing the Minnesota Orchestra. Minnesota Music Director Osmo Vanska is under exclusive contract to the Scandinavian BIS label, which is issuing that ensemble's Beethoven symphony cycle. From what I hear on this CD, the relationship between Reference and the Kansas City Symphony promises to be a fruitful one.
The three works presented here, all from Britten's early career (1940-1946), brilliantly demonstrate the composer's mastery of orchestral idiom. The Young Person's Guide (aka Variations and Fugue on Themes by Purcell) is Britten's best-known work. Sinfonia da Requiem (commissioned by the Japanese government in 1940 but subsequently rejected) is, unfortunately, not nearly so well known. Its economical three-movement structure, memorable themes and powerful orchestration are most impressive, and the work deserves to be programmed far more often than it is. The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten's great opera Peter Grimes are now well established as concert fare independent of the opera. Conductor Michael Stern has chosen to integrate the Passacaglia into the Sea Interludes, placing it just before the closing "Storm" movement. I have not previously encountered that arrangement, but I find that it works quite well, especially in this captivating performance.
There is recorded competition for all these selections. My personal favorites have been Britten's Guide, Previn's Sinfonia and Giulini's Sea Interludes. But — somewhat to my surprise, I confess — this band from America's heartland hold their own even against such distinguished competitors. Michael Stern shows himself to be a conductor worth watching. Time after time as I went through this disc I was struck by his fresh and interesting takes on this familiar music, and by his ability to clarify orchestral texture and draw exciting, committed to playing from the Kansans. The orchestra is solid, with exceptional brass, expressive winds and precise, vigorous work from all of the string sections.
On the evidence heard here, the concert venue in Kansas City yields very clear and dynamic sound, albeit slightly on the dry side compared to the more lush acoustics of the Minneapolis venue heard on this label in recent years. Master recording engineer Keith O. Johnson, as we might expect, has clearly figured out the hall, and I look forward eagerly to what this collaboration will produce in the future. This release is urgently recommended, sonically and musically.