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Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony Orchestra – Britten’s Orchestra (2009) [Official Digital Download 24bit/88,2kHz]

Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony Orchestra – Britten’s Orchestra (2009)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/88.2 kHz | Digital Booklet | 912 MB | Genre: Classical
Official Digital Download – Source: HDtracks | © Reference Recordings

One of the chief characteristics of Benjamin Britten’s music is his masterful and highly distinctive orchestration, and the works on this album are among his most prized for that hallmark of his originality: the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Sinfonia da requiem, and the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes. In tribute to Britten’s brilliant handling of the orchestra, Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony have recorded these works in 24-bit, high-definition sound, which provides remarkable details and ideal stereo separation of the instruments, but also puts the music in a rather dry and compressed-sounding ambience. A result of this kind of hyper-refined digital technology is that every note is heard quite clearly, but the space surrounding it feels airless, unless it is played at a fairly high volume; even then, only the bass drum and a few other percussion instruments show any signs of natural reverberation. Furthermore, there is a sustained though extremely soft background noise that is reminiscent of analog tape hiss, though it is not prominent or distracting. While the playing here is admirable for its pristine execution and energy, and Stern deserves kudos for drawing intensely musical performances out of what otherwise might have been a sterile showcase, the absence of lively acoustics makes this album a little hard to get used to, and perhaps only technophiles will rejoice in the sanitized reproduction.

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Michael Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble: Kansas City Symphony Orchestra

Reviews: In a brilliant display of orchestra power and poetry from the country’s heartland, Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in an all-Benjamin Britten programme that speaks eloquently and, as much as possible in such spectacular recordings, to the music’s heart in a strong and simple way. In The Young Person’s Guide, the timpani are in particularly noble tune, the strings are sumptuous and the trilling flutes are guaranteed to delight children just as are the exotic oboes, the goof-off clarinets and the moustache-twirling bassoons. Throughout Stern successfully treads that uncertain line between the Guide being just a lollipop and a serious piece for critics to ponder.

In the more substantial Sinfonia da Requeim and the Interludes from Peter Grimes, Stern mostly chooses to be rich and solid and build the sound up from the amazing low strings and brass. Perhaps there’s a loss of tension at the end of the “Lacrymosa” but it’s more than redeemed by a ferocious kettle drum and some consoling playing from the strings. The big, emotional tune in the last movement is glorious without being sentimental. The Grimes Interludes, with the Passacaglia placed before the Storm to stretch the music out into a more satisfying dramatic scheme, are magnificently played, with viola-player Christine Grossman rapturous in the Passacaglia

As always with this great audiophile label, the skill and commitment of Reference’s recording team need to be accorded special recognition. In either stereo or HDCD, the sound is better than being in the hall: rich in detail, gold in colour and equal to any volume. Richard Freed’s comprehensive liner-notes and a full-colour photograph of the spectacular Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Missouri, in which the recording was made, rounds out a release that could be on short lists for Grammy nominations for 2010.

1. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra 12:33:00
2. Sinfonia da requiem 14:00:00
3. Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia: Dawn 02:45:00
4. Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia: Sunday Morning 02:42:00
5. Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia: Moonlight 03:00:00
6. Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia: Passacaglia 05:01:00
7. Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia: Storm


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