September 2008

Sullivan, Sibelius - Music for "The Tempest"
Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern cond.
Reference Recordings RR-115
Format: CD (HDCD)
Released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

As Antony Hodgson observes in his excellent note, this imaginative program gives us the first orchestral work by the young Arthur Sullivan and the last by Sibelius. The great Finn’s theater music, though generally ignored in our concert halls, is almost as fascinating as his symphonies; this final specimen is contemporaneous with the valedictory tone poem Tapiola, in its own way no less a masterwork.

The two suites comprise 18 concise numbers in addition to the Prelude, each remarkable for its transparency, originality and clarity. The radiant Berceuse, the gossamer "Dance of the Nymphs," the vivid images of Miranda and Prospero and Caliban show Sibelius not winding down, but discovering new colors, new textures, new levels of subtlety, clarity and all-round inventiveness. How could he, on the threshold of an exciting new period at age 60, simply stop at this point, destroy his unfinished Eighth Symphony, and give us nothing more in the 31 years that remained to him?

In any event, Michael Stern and his Kansas City players demonstrate total-immersion belief in this music, and they do wonders for the Sullivan score, too, without trying to make it more than it is. At 19, long before his legendary partnership with W.S. Gilbert, Sullivan was already a polished craftsman, understandably influenced by Mendelssohn, but with some original thoughts as well.

The sound itself, as always from Reference Recordings, is exemplary in both its spaciousness and its definition (and HDCD does make a difference if your player is so equipped). This release, attractive in its own right, creates the highest expectations for subsequent ones from this team.