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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa