It is always a pleasure to welcome a new Reference Recordings album, especially one engineered by RR's cofounder Keith O. "Professor" Johnson. Since the founding, Professor Johnson has made over 130 recordings for the company, with one characteristic standing out: They all sound like real music in a real musical environment. You can be sure with Keith Johnson's Reference Recordings, for example, that an orchestra sounds the way a real orchestra would sound in a real concert hall. That's certainly the case with this recording of the Kansas City Symphony, under the direction of its longtime Music Director Michael Stern, and made in Helzberg Hall. You're pretty much there with the orchestra.
Now, about the content: Between 1914 and 1916, the early years of "The Great War," English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why the first two segments are about "War" and "Peace." He named the movements after the astrological signs of the known planets at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn't really describe either the zodiac signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human spirit.
The music begins with "Mars, the Bringer of War" with its menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Maestro Stern starts things out quietly and builds the dynamic contrasts gradually from there, culminating in a strong finish.
The second movement, "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," is a lovely slow section, and for me it is one of the high points of the work. It is sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We also hear echoes here of "The Lark Ascending," written by Holst's good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams a few years before. Maestro Stern takes the music more literally than I have heard it before, losing a bit of something in overall lyricism yet fitting in nicely with the surrounding movements.
"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" is essentially a big, boisterous Bacchanal, made all the bigger with Maestro Stern controlling the action. It's a rollicking piece, which Stern understands, yet he keeps it tightly wound, never letting it get out of hand. So, under Stern it's big but moderately paced, jolly but never exaggerated.
"Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" was Holst's personal favorite section of the suite. I'm not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it because of its relative ordinariness in the context of the rest of the music. In any case, it does have some lovely poetic revelations, which Maestro Stern is happy to point up.
After that comes "Uranus, the Magician," the segment that has everything in it an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to loudest fortes. It exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra's capabilities, so it's a good test of one's stereo system capabilities. Although Stern takes it at a sprightly tempo, which robs it a mite of its mystery, he plays up its big dynamic contrasts, which enhances its excitement.
The suite ends with "Neptune, the Mystic," a wordless female chorus that fades off into silence at the end. As the music can sometimes run on too long and overstay its welcome, Stern paces it well enough that it doesn't happen. It all seems of a piece and ends naturally, not gimmicky.
Accompanying The Planets Maestro Stern gives us Holst's introductory ballet music from the composer's 1923 one-act opera The Perfect Fool. Holst intended for the opera to be a humorous fairy tale, and Maestro Stern plays it that way, light and airy, witty and delightful.
Producer David Frost and engineers Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin recorded the music at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in January 2015. They recorded it using 24-bit HDCD technology in hybrid Super Audio CD, so it will play back in 2-channel stereo and 5.1 multichannel from the SACD layer and 2-channel stereo from the regular CD layer. As usual, I listened in 2-channel SACD.
Reference Recordings have gotten us into audiophile territory again so expect an enormous dynamic range. There will be a temptation to turn up the volume as you begin. Don't. Things get very loud very quickly enough. There's good imaging involved, left to right and front to back, with sections of the orchestra clearly defined. Note, however, that unlike most live recordings that provide a clinical, close-up perspective, this studio production provides a vantage point that appears about eight or ten rows back from the orchestra. Transparency, therefore, is of the realistic kind, never soft but never glaring or glossy, either. In The Planets I would have preferred a little more upper bass warmth, stronger deep bass, and a tad less lower treble, but that's just me. It's quite good. In The Perfect Fool, everything seems perfect, up and down the spectrum.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: