Three new discs show art of David Zinman Recordings: BSO music director shines in performances of Beethoven, Bernstein, and Gershwin and Ravel.

Classical Sounds

December 14, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A trio of new recordings by David Zinman showcases the music director of the Baltimore Symphony and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in the roles in which he shines most brightly: as a champion of 20th-century music (an all-Leonard Bernstein disc with the BSO on the London label); as a sensitive collaborator in concertos (the Gershwin and Ravel G major concertos with pianist Helene Grimaud and the BSO on Erato); and as a stimulating interpreter of Beethoven (in performances of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 with the Zurich orchestra on Arte Nova Classics, a new super-budget label distributed by BMG Classics).

The best of these is the Beethoven disc -- the first in a series (to be completed some time next year) that will eventually include all nine of the composer's symphonies. These performances would be a bargain at any price; at about $5, they're an extraordinary value.

Zinman's approach to Beethoven's symphonies is well-known to Baltimore listeners. In performances with a modern orchestra, he incorporates many lessons from the "performance practice" movement, the study of how music of earlier periods was performed in its own time, including taking account of the history of instruments and how they were played.

Zinman's performances of Beethoven feature crisper instrumental attacks, more lightly bowed strings and more space between notes than one usually hears in conventional performances. He also adopts brisk tempos that attempt to approximate the composer's controversially fast metronome markings.

The conductor's cycle will not be the first to present the symphonies on modern instruments in a style once confined to early-music specialists. That distinction belongs to the set recorded a few years back by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec). But, if Zinman's first disc is an indication of what is to follow, his will be the best.

The conductor scrubs the Symphony No. 6 (the "Pastorale") clean of the sentimentality in which it is often smothered. This is not a performance that will please listeners accustomed to hearing the composer's paean to nature delivered with mincing gentility.

Zinman does not hesitate to italicize Beethoven's bucolic writing for winds and his slashingly accented chords in the first movement; to make us recognize in the slow movement that mountain streams do not flow slowly; to demonstrate that the third movement suggests inebriated high spirits rather than courtly good manners; and to be unafraid to convey the fourth movement storm with all the noise he can summon from an orchestra.

And this approach to the first four movements makes the finale's hymn of thanksgiving -- particularly as it is beautifully molded by Zinman -- all the more tenderly affecting.

The performance of the Symphony No. 5 is equally impressive. Zinman's furious assault in the first movement is both more exciting and more majestic than that of Roger Norrington's similarly paced, original-instruments account with the London Classical Players. Zinman's, incidentally, is the first recording to use the newly published Baerenreiter Edition of the symphonies.

Listeners may notice that the famous slow oboe solo near the end of the opening movement is here elaborated and extended into a little cadenza. This presents a momentary respite from the movement's sound and fury and makes the return of the music's torrential energies, and the subsequent coda, all the more colossal in their force.

The conductor's two recordings with the Baltimore Symphony are less satisfying than the one with the Zurich orchestra. The Bernstein disc (the overture to "Candide," the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and the ballets "Fancy Free" and "Facsimile") is beautifully played -- superior in almost every respect to a similar collection recorded a few years ago by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (BMG). But the Zinman-BSO performances have the misfortune to appear at the same time as a reissue on Sony Classical of Bernstein's own incomparable performances with the New York Philharmonic, dating from the early 1960s, of some of the same pieces.

Not all composers are the best interpreters of their own music. But Bernstein -- unlike Richard Strauss, who conducted the works of others better than he did his own -- always played his own pieces better than he did those of any other composer.

Listeners seeking the Gershwin and Ravel concertos on a single disc cannot do better than the Grimaud-Zinman collaboration on Erato. But there are better performances of each piece available singly: the Martha Argerich-Claudio Abbado performance of the Ravel with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) is more insouciant in the fast movements and more poignant in the slow one; and the Earl Wild-Arthur Fiedler-Boston Pops partnership in the Gershwin is surpassingly exuberant in its jazziness.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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