Recordings clearly show conductors' differences

Critical Eye

November 20, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Yuri Temirkanov's remarkable six-year tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which ends in June, will go unrecorded, except in memories.

It's regrettable enough that no money could be found for a commercial recording project. It's even more dispiriting that the BSO couldn't even follow the lead of several other orchestras and release its own self-manufactured CDs, so that at least a sense of the Temirkanov magic could be preserved in a tangible fashion.

As things stand now, the situation will be different for Temirkanov's successor, Marin Alsop, who officially takes the post in 2007. She's already scheduled to record John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto with the orchestra this June for Sony, and she's talking about a BSO project for Naxos, the budget label for which she has recorded several discs with other orchestras.

Meanwhile, just-released CDs featuring Alsop and those other orchestras, as well as CDs and one DVD featuring Temirkanov with his other orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, provide a sense of the BSO's artistic present and future.

The latest Temirkanov discs, recorded live, make it all too clear what the BSO will be losing, a conductor who can ignite electric music-making in the concert hall, an interpreter who knows his way into the vast, endlessly rewarding realm behind the printed notes of a score.

The material on the recordings -- Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler -- also reiterates Temirkanov's comparatively limited range, one that leaves out a great deal of contemporary music. The DVD release contains mostly well-trodden fare, too.

The latest Alsop discs reaffirm at least some of what the BSO will be gaining, especially a conductor whose remarkable inquisitiveness takes her into a richly varied repertoire that she can enlighten to compelling effect. Her performances of music by Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Mark-Anthony Turnage make potent additions to her discography.

There's also a warhorse item among these releases, Brahms' Symphony No. 2. That it fails to make a strong impression may explain why some people questioned her BSO appointment.

Music directors are invariably measured on how they handle the standard, essential core of orchestral works. Based on the new Brahms disc, along with the one of Brahms' First Symphony released earlier this year -- part of her complete Brahms symphony set for Naxos with the excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra -- Alsop has a way to go in developing the sort of interpretive depth that distinguishes many conductors in such repertoire.

In Brahms' First, all you have to hear is how Alsop shapes the famous theme in the finale to realize the weakness. Her tempo isn't so much slow as limp (others who favor a stately pace manage to fill the same notes with majesty).

With the Second Symphony, the problem comes more in subtle details, atmosphere, color. Alsop sounds matter-of-fact, letting the music unfold without a distinctive character. Everything is in its place, perfectly respectable and very well played; little of it hits home. Slip just about any vintage performance of the symphony under the beam of your compact disc player and you'll quickly hear what's missing in this one.

It's possible to make a direct comparison between the way Alsop and Temirkanov approach Brahms's Second. In a live, out-of-print 1981 recording with the so-so U.S.S.R. State Symphony Orchestra, Temirkanov finds expressive richness at almost every turn. The finale, in particular, is a triumph, taken at an extremely fast clip that provides an amazing lift. Alsop has that finale moving along neatly, but the music remains earthbound.

No reservations, though, about Alsop's Bernstein disc for Naxos, recorded with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (she has been its principal conductor since 2002). It's a grabber from the first notes.

Everything clicks brilliantly in the Serenade. Philippe Quint is the sterling violin soloist; the ensemble sounds taut and fully engaged; Alsop gets right to the heart of the ingenious music, which deserves to be as well known to American audiences as any European violin concerto.

The conductor illuminates the multiple layers of Bernstein's intense, haunting ballet Facsimile and revels in the prismatic coloring and wit of his late-career Divertimento. Hot stuff.

On another new Naxos disc, Alsop makes a strong case for Kurt Weill as a symphonist, no easy task. She can't disguise dips in inspiration in his two symphonies (No. 1 is decidedly gray), but still manages to make them persuasive. She is especially sensitive to the dark lyricism in No. 2.

She also coaxes from her fine orchestra a beautifully detailed account of a suite from Weill's musical Lady in the Dark, a sophisticated score from a Broadway long ago and oh, so far away.

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