Miraculous Metamorphoses (CD review)

Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis; Prokofiev: The Love of Three Oranges; Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-132.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary tells us that a metamorphosis is "1. a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism, as from the caterpillar to the pupa and from the pupa to the adult butterfly. 2. a complete change of form, structure, or substance, as transformation by magic or witchcraft. 3. any complete change in appearance, character, circumstances, etc. 4. a form resulting from any such change." But you knew that. The question is why Reference Recordings chose to title their album "Miraculous Metamorphoses." The answer, of course, is that each of the three works included on the disc represents a kind of metamorphosis, the music originally deriving from something quite different from what it became.

The first selection is the most obvious example of the album's theme: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, written by German-born U.S. composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) for ballet performance. Hindemith completed the work in 1943, based on music originally composed by Weber in the early nineteenth century as incidental music for a play by Carlo Gozzi. Although the piece continues to get some ballet performances, we more often hear the symphonic arrangement presented here by Maestro Michael Stern and his Kansas City Symphony.

The music is generally light and lively, and that's the way Maestro Stern plays it. Just as Hindemith maintained a healthy respect for Weber's music, so does Stern maintain a respect for Hindemith, neither over-dramatizing the more boisterous sections nor romanticizing the slower, more sentimental parts. He executes the Turandot Scherzo especially well, the percussion putting on a splendidly vigorous show. The Andantino is appropriately calm yet never so gentle as to put one to sleep. Then Hindemith returns to the lighthearted energy of the first movement with an exuberant closing March, which Stern handles well, efficiently building the excitement incrementally until we arrive at an enormously rousing climax. Fun stuff.

Following the Hindemith piece is the suite from The Love of Three Oranges by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The composer intended The Love of Three Oranges as a satirical opera, premiered in 1921 and based again on the works of Carlo Gozzi, so we get two connections between the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces--the composers meant them to be amusing and based them on works by the same earlier author.

Anyway, here we get the six-movement suite Prokofiev lifted from his opera. Once more Stern takes on the music gleefully. Maybe it's in the nature of the music, but Maestro Stern seems to have an even better time with Prokofiev's rather silly music than he did with Hindemith's. Never going overboard to make the Prokofiev sound too caustic or too absurd, he goes for a polite charm that actually makes it more delightful. The third-movement March is probably the most-famous music in the set, and Stern does it up in properly straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek fashion. It's a pleasure from beginning to end.

Finally, we get the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), and the album's theme is complete. At least insofar as concerns the "miraculous" part. It was originally a one-act pantomime ballet that quite infuriated audiences of the time, caused a scandal, and eventually got banned. Today, we mostly hear the concert suite offered here.

The tone of the music is quite different from that of the first two selections on the album. The Miraculous Mandarin is rather grim in mood, its plot concerning three tramps who use a beautiful girl to attract men to an apartment, where they rob and attempt to murder them. It's heavy-going music, dark and somber. Gone are the fun and games of the Hindemith and Prokofiev pieces, replaced by an atmosphere of unyielding despair. Stern makes no attempt to glamorize a score that clearly the composer intended as gloomy, mysterious, and forbidding. At least that's the way Stern plays it, with a heavy emphasis on the mysterious angle. A lot of it sounds downright scary. The Kansas City Orchestra provides Maestro Stern with a secure accompaniment, again with the percussion section lending solid support.

It's always a pleasure listening to an album made by the Reference Recordings team of producer David Frost, recording wizard Keith Johnson, and executive producers Tam Henderson and Marcia Martin. They never attempt to attain the kind of absolute transparency so beloved of the audiophile community but instead capture something closer to the actual sound of a concert hall, in this case Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in 2012.

The sound is wonderfully spacious, dimensional, and dynamic, as you would expect to hear from a symphony orchestra at perhaps the eighth or tenth row center. While the stereo spread is wide, the miking is not so close that you're on top of the instruments. Instead, we hear a depth to the ensemble, with plenty of impact and wide frequency extremes. It's some of the most-natural, most-realistic, most-lifelike new sound you'll find around.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa