Gustav Holst: The Planets, opus 32 – The Perfect Fool, opus 39: Ballet music
Kansas City Symphony Chorus, Charles Bruffy (chorus director), Kansas City Symphony, Noah Geller (concertmaster), Michael Stern (conductor)
Recording: Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri (January 29-31, 2015) – 61’24
Reference Recordings # RR-146 (SACD) – Booklet in English (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Now in its seventh release with Reference Recordings, the Kansas City Symphony (KCS) once again has a stellar gem on its hands. Back in 2014, Michael Stern took hold of Adam Schoenberg’s World Premiere music, a grand coup for the Emmy Award-winning composer. Highly persuasive, the 38 year old’s works were even found more fascinating due to the Brainiac engineering by Keith O. Johnson and Sean Martin to highlight the sheer abstract artistry. Similarly, such carryover into Gustav Holst’s The Planets [with extracts from The Perfect Fool] is a perfect match due to the global immensity and sparkling grandeur it sets forth.
Michael Stern’s unwavering, planetary message is quickly introduced during the strings’ col legno preamble inside “Mars”, defining his incisive ‘plan of attack’: there’s an assertive anxiousness that defies aggressiveness. Such a framework is consistently maintained throughout. Transitions between sections are broad-rimmed, but the clauses can be heard serving an intimate purpose when needed. Soaked with warmth and poise is found inside the platonic Straussian “Venus.” This has to be one of the most enchanting passages, rending extreme pathos and weightier English folk music. What never escapes M. Stern is his need to keep the momentum going, never losing loft: oboe is clairvoyant, Noah Geller’s violin breathes a glowing freshness while Daniel Velicer’s celesta twinkles like a super nova. This is not to be outdone by the scherzo-driven “Mercury”: it flitters like gossamer threads...we hear such conversance through the Johnson/Martin acoustical team. Supreme!
During the jollity of “Jupiter” we experience a moveable fanfare that never reaches excessive snivel, a movement which can be overly-hyped. Michael Stern delves into this soulful reach with outstretched hands. A majestic might is attained, but it never ‘plods’ into becoming trite. Conversely, “Saturn” moves like a patient metronome. Ticking away to Holst’s scrutable tempo, the slumbering sagacity patiently gathers into a crest of eventual forte. Steadiness is at the helm, the mood has been set, and a bell pointedly hits with proper amounts of ethereal visage...sit back and enjoy this planet’s wisdom.
Turning to “Uranus”, Michael Stern continues to ‘gather steam’ with calmed perseverance reflecting upon Dukas’ dynamo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with each of the orchestral sections taking turns at picking away at the wizardry...this keeps the listener ‘on edge.’ Diane Schick’s piccolo, albeit a flittering moment, is striking while Deborah Wells Clark softly adds a few crowning mystic plucks during the closing measures.
Think Hugo, the 2011 movie, and we’re transformed inside the gates of “Neptune.” This passage wouldn’t shine without Michael Stern ‘splitting hairs’ with the investitures of introductory celesta that innocuously opens into Charles Bruffy’s soporific wisps that magically melt into nothing.
On a lighter fare, Steven Seward’s proud tuba’s feigned pomposity ushers in Holst’s ballet music from The Perfect Fool. Though snipping away at ‘spoofdom’ of clichéd opera, there’s an axiom of tangential response which gives the work a bit of suffused nostalgia at times...only to reach back into a hat and pulling out silliness through xylophone scales and the recurring melodramatic motif. It’s too bad this one-act opera is seldom-performed, but at least we have the KCS taking hold of this dimension with a strong parlance of the work’s balletic music.
It goes without saying that Reference Recordings is synonymous with excellence in quality and depiction. Firmly anchored within our ‘Fruited Plain’, the Kansas City Symphony possesses an imposing quality of perfection and candor.
Kansas City Symphony website