Author Topic: Marin Alsop completes her Brahms cycle  (Read 2857 times)

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Offline Brian

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Marin Alsop completes her Brahms cycle
« on: September 11, 2007, 03:08:53 PM »
This month sees the release of the fourth and final disc of Marin Alsop's Brahms symphonies, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos. I feel more or less obligated to review it on this board, having reviewed Nos. 2 and 3 on the forum's old (now read-only) incarnation (and the First on Amazon). To bring readers up to speed on the series so far, here are extracts from my old reviews:

BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 / Academic Festival Overture / Tragic Overture
"Brahms gets 'time and space to unfold' ... this CD is indeed special. In fact, I might be right in saying it's the best First Symphony in all-digital sound, and has truly top-rank overture performances for filler." - me on Amazon, under a pseudonym

BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 / Various Hungarian Dances
"Towards the end of the exposition is the biggish rolling climax, which comes right before the second appearance of the "lullaby" theme. This point, I believe, is the point at which Marin's great hope of being recognized as a great, or even good, Brahms conductor - dies. It's a slow, painful death. It's a slow, painful moment, actually; there is no excitement, no build, no feeling. ... For filler Marin chose a selection of Hungarian Dances. This is not as stupid as it sounds: it's even stupider. Naxos has already got what many critics, including the Penguin Guide and yours truly, consider to be the best ever orchestral recording of the Dances, with Istvan Bogar absolutely whooshing along at the helm with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra ... Alas! There is no comparison. Ms. Alsop waddles along like a penguin..."

BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 / Haydn Variations
"...in adherence with the Mehta Law of Artistic Mediocrity ('Mediocre performers will release one or two really dazzling CDs in the midst of a series of clunkers, just to confuse everyone'), I expected nothing less than the greatest-ever performance of Brahms' Third Symphony. Ha ha! Yeah right. ... Her style gives us the kind of recording which makes me picture Brahms as a charmless, emotionless old codger."

- - -

As you would expect, I approached her Fourth Symphony with dread. After all, the last of Brahms' Symphonies is the best, the most intense, and probably the hardest to conduct properly (though the others aren't easy). Also, having been raised on Carlos Kleiber's astonishing account, I have gotten to the point where if even thirty seconds of the Symphony don't seem right to me, the whole performance is ruined. Based on the fact that she nailed the First before getting totally destroyed by the next two, I expected Marin Alsop's Brahms 4 to be a total disaster.

I was wrong. It is a general success, and almost a great one. It comes, by my estimate, roughly thirty seconds short of being one of the best recordings of the symphony, ever. The first movement is taken briskly - and when I say briskly, I mean just a bit faster than Kleiber, though still a full minute short of Toscanini's insensitive jog with the NBC Symphony. The resulting arc (this first movement always seems to me to be an exercise in story-telling. What is Brahms saying to us? Who are the flawed heroes of this tale?) is carried along quite well, very exciting and with a big emotional punch. The London Philharmonic plays beautifully, as it has all series. Why do some people go out of their way to complain about this orchestra? The violin tone in particular is rich and satisfying. The only thing lacking is the booming timpani notes in the final few bars - they are imposing, but in Kleiber's recording they are quite like death knells. They are simply horrifying!

Ah, you say, but it is unfair to compare to anyone to Carlos Kleiber, since his recording is, obviously, rather special, something unapproachable in performance history. (After my Third Symphony review Iago complained extensively that I should not dare discuss Toscanini in the same sentence as Ms. Alsop.) You would be correct in arguing such, except for the fact that I like Ms. Alsop's slow movement better than Kleiber's. It is a different tack, to be sure: almost meditative in its opening sections, it includes utterly beautiful contributions from solo horn and clarinet, and the bassoons are marvelous too. This movement seems a bit dreamy, and is all in all rather special itself.

The third movement is rather brisk, but overall it works. I have no particular comment to make about it, except that the orchestra once again demonstrates what a wonderful ensemble it is, and that the quieter "trio" section in the middle (if you can call it that!) seems to be just as brisk as the surrounding passages. The horn player is rather eager, isn't he? And the full orchestra's return is a bit too bat-out-of-hell for my taste; Alsop seems to be continuously upping the speed.

The finale's opening alarmed me initially; I was afraid we'd have on our hands a recording with a heart of stone. However, I am soon happily disproved by Ms. Alsop's lyrical tempi and the superb solo playing of the woodwinds within the first minute. The strings' entrance represents a bit of a letting-up of momentum of initially, however. The following episodes are done well enough, though the solos are not as "desperate" as in other readings. The transition back to the work's opening does not convince me. The following passages do, though, and the momentum and force build up impressively. As the music grows more and more frantic, so does the atmosphere, though the recording's clarity still lets everything be heard.

Then come those ruinous thirty seconds. They begin when the flutes inject a major-theme idea into the mix, and then under Ms. Alsop's not-firm-enough grasp on tempo, the music begins to slow down and the subsequent lyrical episode, with a bit of blooming violin - well, it would be wonderful in the second movement. But it's in the finale. It sucks the music dry of the power surge that came before it, and it seems small and child-like. As a result, the next few variations and eventually the very last bars are simply not a culmination of all that's come before. They aren't the last notes of a stunning 40-minute tragedy. They seem a bit more like an isolated incident. (A few oddly legato brass notes don't help.) And thus a brief urge on Ms. Alsop's part to stop and smell the roses prevents this oh-so-promising reading from achieving greatness.

The coupling is another selection of Hungarian Dances. All I can ask is "Why, why, why?" Naxos already has a recording of the Dances, complete, under the baton of Istvan Bogar, and frankly that disc is so good there is no need for anyone to listen to any other version! It is a classic, and Marin Alsop simply can't compete, even with "imaginative new orchestrations" by Peter Breiner, which in fact bear an exceptionally close resemblance to the old ones, except with a few (admittedly interesting) added details.

All in all, this disc was far better than the last two in the series. But the final verdict on Marin Alsop's Brahms cycle is that it demonstrated exceptional promise, and delivered in 1.5 of the symphonies - but ultimately was no more worthy than any of the grand old performances of these works. I now hear that she is in the process of recording all of Dvorak's symphonies for Naxos, and am frankly terrified. They already have one mediocre cycle (Gunzenhauser, Slovak PO); now they are set to acquire a second. Expect Symphonies 1, 2, 6, and 7 to suffer most in her hands. There's a reason she specializes in modernist repertoire.
« Last Edit: September 11, 2007, 03:10:58 PM by brianrein »

BorisG

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Re: Marin Alsop completes her Brahms cycle
« Reply #1 on: September 11, 2007, 03:51:57 PM »
There's a reason she specializes in modernist repertoire.

Yes, with Takemitsu the other day,  I added another one of her moderns to my collection. That is the category she should stay in, without feeling hard done by. There is so much to be done there.