This week, it's BSO's Marin Alsop all over

Conductor's three CD releases cover works by Orff, Brahms and Glass, with spirit

Classical Music Review

January 28, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

These days, many classical musicians would consider themselves fortunate to make one or two recordings a year. Marin Alsop has three discs coming out Tuesday alone.

Alsop has been one of the most prolific conductors in the recording studio for the past several years, working mainly with the remarkably successful budget label Naxos, which is releasing Tuesday's triple volley.

These new releases find the music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra collaborating with two British ensembles - her other BSO, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which named her principal conductor in 2002; and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (There are plans for Alsop to start making recordings with her Maryland BSO for Naxos this year.)

The conductor covers a diverse sampling of repertoire in the trio of CDs - Brahms' Symphony No. 3, the third installment in a cycle of his symphonies with the London Philharmonic; Carl Orff's crowd-pleasing Carmina Burana and two big orchestral pieces by Philip Glass, with the Bournemouth Symphony.

The discs provide a timely reminder of the qualities and tastes that the conductor is bringing to the region as she settles more deeply into her Baltimore post (coincidentally, she leads an all-Glass program with the BSO next month). Here's a closer look at this week's abundance of Alsop:

Carl Orff: Carmina Burana (Naxos 8.570033)

Nothing is likely to diminish the popularity of Orff's cantata. Some terribly sophisticated musicians have been known to dismiss it because it doesn't sound, well, terribly sophisticated. Others hear the perfectly coordinated stomp of Nazi boots in it, simply because it made its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937 (Orff was no Third Reich toady). But most folks just surrender willingly to Carmina Burana, its celebration of pagan sensuality and medieval tension-release (the texts come from a 13th-century collection of anonymous Middle Ages poets and songsters), its simple tunefulness and bluntness.

Alsop, who invariably shines in music filled with rhythmic assertiveness and living-color instrumentation, taps into the earthy jolt of the well-worn score, keeping things taut and crisp. There's a nice bite to the aggressive passages, an unfussy lyricism to the sweeter ones.

The choral and orchestral forces of the Bournemouth Symphony respond impressively, nowhere more so than in the last movement of the "On the Green" section - 55 particularly incendiary seconds. Alsop has the men's voices building up terrific steam at the end of the "In the Tavern" section, and she likewise generates considerable propulsion in the orchestra-only "Round Dance."

A touch more snap and drive would be welcome in a few places, as in the recurring outbursts from the orchestra in "Wounded by Fortune," and the cantata's finale, which is nearly anticlimactic, missing the last ounce of exultation and abandon. But the performance clicks nonetheless, and also delivers a sizable sonic impact.

Of the soloists, baritone Markus Eiche is unfailingly expressive, giving words a lot of character, though his voice doesn't open up easily at the top end. Tom Randle tackles the single, thankless tenor aria - the lament of a slowly roasting swan - more or less effectively. Long-breathed soprano Claire Rutter does thoroughly enchanting work in "The Court of Love" section, though upper register constriction keeps her final solo from reaching an ethereal state.

Orff's celebration of medieval revels is already heavily represented on disc, but there should be room for one more, especially one this full of life.

Brahms: Symphony No. 3, Variations on a Theme of Haydn --(Naxos 8.557430)

Alsop's Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic has given her a chance to document her ideas about the standard symphonic repertoire that still counts heavily in the evaluation of any conductor.

The first two products, Symphony No. 1 and No. 2, both released in 2005, were certainly respectable but rather ordinary in terms of interpretation and, especially in the finales, somewhat short on ear-grabbing electricity. With No. 3, however, Alsop seems to have moved into a higher gear.

The Third Symphony, which has something of the dark edge of the First and something of the tender poetry of the Second, can be an elusive work to conduct. Leonard Bernstein (one of Alsop's mentors) aimed for profundity by slowing down most of the piece to a crawl; some emphasize softer edges in the score, to the detriment of the power. Alsop opts for a middle ground but avoids a middle-of-the-road performance.

Right from the first measures, she has the music churning mightily, and the playing by the Londoners reveals real weight and vigor. Other approaches, particularly made by conductors from eras long past, have put extra emphasis on certain notes or stretched tempos a fraction to make a deeper, more drama-laden point in that first movement, but Alsop still gets the forcefulness of the music across.

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