Elgar: Enigma Variations; The Wasps; Vaughan Williams: Greensleeves / Stern, Kansas City Symphony

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ELGAR Enigma Variations. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Wasps: Suite. Fantasia on Greensleeves Michael Stern, cond; Kansas City SO REFERENCE RR-129 (61:11)

The reason to acquire this disc is not necessarily for the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but rather to experience the brilliant playing of the Kansas City Symphony under the inspired baton of its music director, Michael Stern. The Kansas City Symphony was born out of the bankrupt rubble of the old Kansas City Philharmonic in 1982. Michael Stern—for those who do not know, the son of famed violinist Isaac Stern—took over as the orchestra’s music director in 2004 and has built it into a truly first-rate ensemble.

When I first received this disc for review, I was a bit skeptical. When it comes to British music, I must admit I am a bit of a snob, believing—however erroneously—that this music can only be played properly by British conductors and orchestras. (I have a similar prejudice about American music and American conductors and orchestras.) How happy I was to be proven wrong. The big ticket item on the disc is of course, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and here, Stern and his great orchestra deliver a thrilling and thoroughly idiomatic performance that can stand toe-to-toe with those of the best British orchestras and conductors. Of course the cornerstone of any Enigma is “Nimrod” and this performance has a very powerful and moving one. The big climax at the end is almost overwhelming. Elsewhere, the brass really have a field day with “Troyte” and in the final variation “E.D.U.” The woodwinds are delectable in Dorabella and the strings sound wonderfully lean and muscular throughout. This is a truly great Enigma , one to stand alongside those of Boult, Barbirolli, Haitink, and Monteux. (Yes, I know these last two aren’t British conductors, but they both use British orchestras.)

For me, the remainder of the disc doesn’t quite measure up to the stunning Enigma , not because of any deficiency in the playing or conducting, but because Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps is simply not one of the composer’s more distinguished efforts. The lively overture is engaging enough, but the remainder of the work finds VW in his generic, stereotypical “folksong” vein. Cut from the same cloth as the composer’s magnificent London Symphony, The Wasps lacks that great work’s sense of mystery as well as its energy and organic momentum. This is the type of music Vaughan Williams could almost toss off in his sleep. It’s pleasant enough, but lacks inspiration. However, I will be the first to admit that many will disagree with my assessment of this music and if you’re a fan of this work, you will not be disappointed with this stunning performance. The program is filled out by a lovingly shaped Greensleeves Fantasia.

This disc whets my appetite for more British music from this source. I would love to hear what Stern and his players could do with the Elgar and Vaughan Williams symphonies or perhaps some Britten and Tippett or even The Planets . As we have come to expect for this label, the recorded sound is absolutely breathtaking. Detail after delectable detail emerges with an astonishing clarity. The perspective is very much “inside” the orchestra, an almost 3D-like imaging as if the listener is sitting in the first row of woodwinds. The bass drum and organ pedal are especially well captured; stunningly clear (not just a boom or a rumble), natural and well balanced, yet they still have enough “wow factor” to satisfy any audiophile. Whether you love this music or you’re just looking for a demonstration disc to give your system a thorough workout, or both, Michael Stern, his splendid orchestra, and Reference Recordings do not disappoint.

FANFARE: Merlin Patterson


The universe is not exactly desperate for more recordings of this repertoire, but this one, surprising as it might seem, is pretty excellent. Michael Stern and his Kansas City Symphony take to the music as if to the manner born. The Wasps, here given as the complete suite and not just the overture, is delightful. Perhaps the only slight miscalculation in the entire performance is the overly swift March Past of the Kitchen Utensils, which loses some of its comic swagger at Stern’s tempo. Otherwise the overture and (especially) the Ballet and Final Tableau offer pure enjoyment from start to finish. The Fantasia on Greensleeves, un-killable in just about any circumstances, sounds just fine as well.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations is even more impressive. Stern characterizes the piece unerringly, capturing the gusto of Troyte, the charm of Dorabella, the gruff humor of G.R.S., the lachrymose sentimentality of B.G.N. Nimrod is particularly moving here, flowing but with a nice emphasis on the inner harmonies at the variation’s start. The finale is extremely impressive, aided by state-of-the-art sonics that offer the finest integration of organ and orchestra yet captured in this work on disc. Beginning with perhaps a touch of restraint, the music builds to a final climax that is just thrilling. The disc is worth hearing for the final minute alone. So even if you have a million versions of this music, you may want to give this a shot if only to hear what can be achieved with it sonically.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 29, 2013

  • Catalog Number: RR-129

  • UPC: 030911112929

  • Label: Reference Recordings

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar

  • Conductor: Michael Stern

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Kansas City Symphony Orchestra