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Britten's Orchestra - Michael Stern

Britten's Orchestra - Michael Stern

Reference Recordings  RR-120SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Sinfonia da requiem, Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes"

Kansas City Symphony
Michael Stern (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - June 27, 2010

A useful collection of Britten's best-known early works, which demonstrate his consummate skill as an innovative orchestrator. First available in the USA as an HDCD, this issue is a hybrid with an HDCD layer and 5.1 multichannel and stereo SACD tracks. Engineered for Reference Recordings by Professor Keith O. Johnson (and the company's first SACD), it is in some respects oriented towards the audiophile community who require spectacular sound, although under Michael Stern's guidance, it has substantial musical merit as well.

Heard on its own, the Kansas 'Young People's Guide to the Orchestra' (thankfully without spoken commentary) sounds well enough. Paavo Järvi's version with the Cincinatti SO has, coincidentally, exactly the same track time as Stern's, but both of them pale considerably when compared with Britten's own RBCD version with the LSO. Informed by his deep love for and knowledge of Purcell's music, Britten and the LSO play with buoyant rhythm and infectious glee which so far has yet to be matched on disc. Listen to their opening and the swagger of their playing Purcell's theme from Abdelazer compared with the staid, more metrical approach of both Järvi and Stern. The same problem occurs in the final bars, when the Abdelazer tune strides boldly back into the controlled chaos of the fugue; with Britten and the LSO this is so thrilling and inevitable that listeners are almost compelled to rise from their seats and cheer. Even at the theme's double note value, Britten and his LSO horns give it an irresistible rhythmic lift as the horns slice through his brashly chaotic fugue. Yet, with both Stern and Järvi, the theme enters squarely and pedantically.

Stern's players also are nowhere near as committed in their attack and pace in the rest of the piece as the LSO - listen, for example, how the LSO strings bound into action with full tone and fearless gusto in their version of the Theme. The Kansas strings are tentative in comparison. In virtually every variation, Britten's orchestra fizzes with thrilling energy and sheer élan which is often lacking in this more prosaic account from Kansas. Järvi's players don't do much better.

The Kansas City SO 'Young Person's Guide' also suffers from "Telarc's Big Bass Drum Syndrome", and their drum is unfortunately one of the Genus with a flat, dull sound. The bass drum is mostly far too loud from the first chord onwards, especially in the resonant Community of Christ Auditorium, frequently distracting one's attention from the musical flow. Britten was an excellent conductor, and his Decca recording balances the bass drum so that it forms an almost subliminal emotional underpinning, rarely drawing attention to itself. In fact, he very often meticulously scores the bass drum with a single forte when the other instruments playing in a chord are marked fortissimo or fff. Previn, Hickox and other notable Britten conductors also keep the bass drum's contribution in its musical context.

Another example of the domineering bass drum is to be heard in the Kansas version of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem; its initial thwack drowns out the other instruments in this colourful chord (tympani, 2 bassoons, contra bassoon, 2 harps and piano with deep B flat octaves). On Britten's recording, this chord still startles, yet we can clearly hear its richness coming from winds, harps and piano above the timps- this is what audiophile sound should be about. The bass drum also contributes (too) greatly in the later repeat of these introductory timpani-led chords, but Stern has already shot his bolt, as it were, with his very loud shock-and-awe opening; Britten knew that the later appearance was the climax of the movement, so he held back on the opening slams.

This sonic problem apart, Stern gives a fine reading of the profoundly-felt Sinfonia da Requiem, a forerunner of Britten's War Requiem. He is not inferior in sound or interpretation to Hickox (in his performance with the War Requiem, Britten: War Requiem - Hickox). Stern's first movement lacks Britten's own latent tension; Britten also has a greater range of emotion in the ferocious Dies Irae scherzo; sneering brass, a more brilliant but heartless galloping theme and a very sexily vampish alto sax in its trio, where Stern is cooler. In the final movement, Requiem aeternam, the Kansas orchestra thankfully finds a kind of Peace with commendable lack of sentimentality.

Stern's rendition of the Sea Interludes from 'Peter Grimes' is very well done, and he has taken an interesting decision to place the Passacaglia before The Storm, the latter coming from the First Act of the Opera. According to Britten The Storm represents Grime's ultimate casting out and death at sea, so it admittedly makes more sense as a conclusion of the concert suite. Yielding only a little to Previn's excellent version in atmosphere and fluidity of line, Stern's is an enjoyable set. Fortunately the bass drum was kept at an appropriate level here.

The overall sound picture is impressive, considering the reverberant auditorium, although instruments are not always easy or to locate or place consistently. No mention of a full surround set-up for the recording is given in the booklet or RR's website. Other commentators, listening in multichannel like myself, have noted that at times certain instruments seem to move to the surrounds - the side-drum to the left, trumpets to both left and right. Although the normal perspective is distinctly with the orchestra at stage front and abundant ambience in the surrounds, as the volume increases, the sound gradually seems to surround the listener, although it is hard to pinpoint instruments or groups accurately along the sides or back of the sound-stage. I suspect this may be the effect of the domed auditorium, becoming excited to present multiple wall reflections to the microphone array, rather like an acoustic lens. At no time was there a sense of the solid surround images engineered, for example, by 2L in their true wrap-around orchestral layouts.

I found this an enjoyable if sometimes frustrating disc, due to the often unrestrained dead-sounding bass drum and the underplayed 'Young Person's Guide'. But it has an airy and detailed sound, if rather uncertain in overall solidity and definition of the orchestra (which varies with one's seating position). Not state of the art in orchestra recording, to my mind, and certainly not definitive performances. You can get the same programme better played on a cheaper, very well recorded RBCD by Pesek and the RLPO. Better still, buy the essential Britten recordings of 'Guide' and 'Sinfonia da Reqiuem'. On the other hand, if you are an unreconstructed bass drum addict, your choice is clear!

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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