Stern Conducts One-Movement Symphonies


BARBER: First Symphony. SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 7. SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 4, “Poem of Ecstasy” / Kansas City Symphony Orch.; Michael Stern, cond / Reference Recordings RR-149

This is exactly the kind of imaginative programming that I long to see on most symphonic CD releases but seldom do. Of the three works presented here, the Scriabin is undoubtedly the most famous although the Sibelius is also programmed once in a while. But the Samuel Barber Symphony of 1936? I’d never even heard it before, and although I’m sure there are other recordings out there I’ve never run across it previously.

And who exactly are Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony? It turns out that the latter was founded in 1982, so it is kind of a Johnny-come-lately among American orchestras. As for Stern, he has been the orchestra’s music director since 1995, and is also artistic director of the Germantown, Tennessee IRIS Orchestra, known for its innovative programming and commissioning of new works. So it makes sense that on this disc, Stern and “his” orchestra present a varied and interesting program, not some cookie-cutter 19th-century schlock thrown together to anesthetize his audience with familiar sounds.

Although I’ve never much liked Barber’s larger works—I always felt that he worked best in short forms, i.e. the Adagio, Essays for Orchestra and his songs—this particular symphony does have its moments. It exhibits his lyricism, which is obvious from the pieces I cited above, and he ties this in well with the more dramatic moments of the work. Here his youthful imagination (he was only 26 when he wrote it) created an interesting tapestry of sound. It’s not really a first-class symphony, but it is an interesting one and uses more modern harmonies in places than one is used to from his later operas. It’s only when you reach the second, slow section of the symphony that the music becomes uninteresting, overly lyrical and a bit drippy without saying very much, that your attention wanders.

In the Sibelius Symphony, which I know fairly well, I could judge Stern’s conducting style a bit better. He reminds me of James Conlon: superb control of orchestral balance and textures, good phrasing, but like Conlon he is somewhat reticent in his emotional projection of the music. Compared with the average modern conductor his performance of this symphony is quite acceptable, but when pitted against such past conductors of this symphony as Sir Thomas Beecham and Charles Munch, it is rather lacking in orchestral color and emotion. Sadly, the greatest Sibelius conductor of all time, the composer’s great friend Robert Kajanus, died after recording his first five symphonies and thus never made his own recording of this piece. Stern give you a good, solid, professional performance but doesn’t quite go as deep as one would like.

Stern’s Poem of Ecstasy is likewise beautifully phrased and articulated, but in his hands the ecstasy is somewhat on the cool side. Nonetheless, I heard many interesting details in the music that escape many a recording by more famous conductors, and his pacing of the symphony is excellent.

In brief, then, an interesting album, particularly valuable if you’d like to have the Barber Symphony, but there are just too many competitors in the Sibelius and Scriabin for this to be a first choice.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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