One Movement Symphonies (CD review)

Barber: First Symphony; Sibelius: Symphony No. 7; Scriabin: Le poem de l’extase. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-149.

By John J. Puccio

Sometimes you think you know something, and you don’t. In this case, I thought I knew pretty much what a symphony was all about. Apparently, I didn’t.

“Symphony: an extended piece in three or more movements for symphony orchestra.” --American Heritage Dictionary

“Symphony: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections, often four.” --Wikipedia

“Symphony: a lengthy form of musical composition for orchestra, normally consisting of several large sections, or movements, at least one of which usually employs sonata form.” --Encyclopedia Britannica

“Symphony: a usually long and complex sonata for symphony orchestra.” --Merriam-Webster Dictionary

But as the producers of this disc, One Movement Symphonies, point out, those definitions are not necessarily true. Each of the works on the album is a one-movement orchestral piece that their composers identified as “symphonies.” Yet these are not obscure works by obscure composers. They are major symphonic pieces by composers we all know: Samuel Barber’s First Symphony; Jean Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony; and Alexander Scriabin’s Le poeme de l’extase (“The Poem of Ecstasy”). OK. We all know the music. But have we really considered them “symphonies” in any strict sense of the term? Maybe. Maybe not.

Be that as it may, it’s the “one-movement” business that holds the program together, starting with the First Symphony (1936) by American composer, conductor, pianist, and singer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber subtitled it “In One Movement” just to make clear what he was up to, and sometimes people refer to it simply as the “Symphony in One Movement.” Despite the title, however, the work really is divided into four brief sections: Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro molto, Andante tranquillo, and Con moto. Barber modeled it on Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, which is also divided into traditional movements but played without breaks.

Maestro Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony play the piece in a fairly straightforward manner, without undue flourish yet with delicate nuance. They handle the mood swings in the music with subtlety and grace, producing if not the most striking account of the piece ever recorded certainly one of the most enjoyable.

Next, speaking of Sibelius, comes the famous Symphony No. 7 in C major, written 1924 by Finnish composer and violinist Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). When Sibelius premiered it, however, he called it Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, a "symphonic fantasy." It wasn’t until the next year and its publication that he decided to label it a true “symphony.” By whatever name he wanted to call it, the work is still divided into distinct sections, in this case more than ever, with no less than ten discrete divisions from an opening Adagio to a closing Affettuoso (with “feeling” or “warmth”) and Tempo 1 (a return to the work’s initial tempo). However, the uniting thread holding it all together is not a series of contrasting keys and themes as in most traditional symphonies but a single, unifying key, C, and a series of constantly changing tempos. Again we get an honest, forthright presentation from Maestro Stern, with the orchestra sounding rich and resonant. The music remains colorful, lyrical, almost magical throughout, and the performance provides much pleasure.

The final work is Le poeme de l’extase (1905-08) by the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915). This work I’ve always thought of a symphonic poem rather than a true symphony mainly because it avoids the usual symphonic movements and contents itself to communicate a set of more spiritual emotions. Scriabin described it as “the joy of liberated action,” and approved the following program notes: “The stronger the pulse beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity itself. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall arrive.”

It’s a rather fanciful way of saying the music is sensual and provocative and should be played and enjoyed with passion. Stern’s way with it isn’t exactly in the heady realms of a Stokowski, Svetlanov, Gergiev, Muti, Abbado, or Mitropoulos, but it comes close enough. Stern appears to go for a beauty in the work beyond its mysticism, making it all the more enchanting, even beguiling for the listener.

Producer David Frost and engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the symphonies at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in June 2016. This is a classic Reference Recordings production, meaning it sounds the way Reference Recordings discs have sounded since their founding back in 1976 and the way we’ve always loved them. The sound is dynamic, dimensional, wide ranging, and real. That last is particularly important. Reference Recordings have never tried to sound “audiophile,” just lifelike, and in the process the company has, perhaps ironically, established itself as a leader in the audiophile recording industry.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that the current disc displays wide frequency and dynamic ranges, a solid impact, and a realistic orchestral depth and width. It comes about as close as one can get to sitting in a concert hall at a moderate distance from the ensemble. It’s quite impressive.


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

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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.

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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, 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.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

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. 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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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