March 27, 2008


Mark-Anthony Turnage: Twice Through the Heart; Hidden Love Song; The Torn Fields. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Martin Robertson, soprano saxophone; Gerald Finley, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. LPO. $17.99.

Bartók: The Wooden Prince (complete ballet). Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9; Symphonic Variations. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

      Marin Alsop is all over the place, both geographically and musically. On these three CDs, with three different orchestras from two continents, she supplies strong evidence of her affinity for modern classical music – the more modern, the better – while also betraying some impatience (or could it be lack of interest?) when conducting works from the more traditional repertoire.

      The Turnage CD is mostly unrelenting and very intense, and those characteristics play to Alsop’s strengths. Turnage is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s composer in residence, and the LPO plays all the works on this CD with relish and striking familiarity with Turnage’s often-brutal style. Twice Through the Heart produces anguish through the use of everyday words as an unnamed, abused, imprisoned woman explains why she killed her vicious husband but would not testify against him in court, even though doing so could have kept her out of jail. The work is less sung than declaimed by Sarah Connolly, and is a searing experience with intense nonverbal interludes and music that often comments on words that have gone before – such as “locked in,” with its pounding accompaniment, like blows. Hidden Love Song, in contrast, is quiet and gently atonal, its love song very well hidden indeed, although the music pulsates and Martin Robertson’s soprano saxophone floats through it effectively. The Torn Fields, a horrors-of-war work, transcends its genre through excellent selection of poetry (mostly by young men who died in World War I) and a streak of dark and bitter humor. Gerald Finley extracts full meaning from the stanzas, especially when, early in the work, what comes across is a lengthy lament of unending dreariness, with very spare accompaniment. A two-minute orchestral interlude toward the end of this piece is speedy and sardonic – the fastest music on the entire CD – but the earlier mood soon returns in a poem called “The Mouthless Dead,” before a final “Aftermath” that is oddly optimistic. Alsop guides the London players flawlessly through the many mood changes of all Turnage’s pieces – she is more adept at stringing musical miniatures together than at creating a fully thought-through rendition of a lengthy and complex work.

      The limitations of Alsop’s approach are clear in her mostly excellent performance of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince with the Bournemouth Symphony. The ballet is in 14 continuous parts, but Alsop handles it more as 14 separate pieces that happen to follow each other. The result is an episodic performance – not really a problem in a ballet – and one in which the wit and bright instrumental touches are more successful than the languorous passages. The opening, for example, is effectively atmospheric; the “Dance of the Trees” is raucous and bouncy; “The Prince Builds a Wooden Prince” is jaunty; and there is a good sense of the grotesque in “The Princess Spies the Wooden Prince” and “Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Prince” (in which the percussion is excellent). But the central movement, “The Prince Is in Despair – The Fairy Comforts Him,” which is in one sense the emotional heart of the work, is grand and lush enough but also a bit draggy and ultimately anticlimactic. Alsop seems more comfortable with the perky bassoon (and other winds) in “The Princess Prods and Encourages the Wooden Prince to Dance” than she does at the ballet’s end, when the princess and non-wooden prince embrace: the final scene is pretty enough but falls a trifle flat emotionally. Still, the orchestra plays very well, and Alsop’s enjoyment of Bartók’s grotesqueries (if not of his Romantic side) comes through clearly.

      Alsop is now Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and certainly gets lush playing from this very poised ensemble in a new CD of Dvořák’s music, recorded live at Meyerhoff Hall and initially available only through the orchestra itself. Here, unfortunately, Alsop’s impatience with “classic” classical repertoire is on display. The Symphonic Variations are mostly successful in this smooth rendition, although the hall’s dark, echo-y sound muddies things a bit. The orchestra is nicely balanced, with especially good contrasts between brass and winds, although Alsop tends to smooth over the angularity of the work’s Czech rhythms. The “New World” Symphony, though – which is labeled from the New World, not of the New World – is less successful. Alsop often pays tribute to Leonard Bernstein, a formative influence on her style, but Bernstein had some bad conducting habits that Alsop appears to have embraced – notably unnecessary and intrusive rubato that robs music of its forward flow and, far from accentuating its emotional impact, vitiates it. There is some of this in the symphony’s first movement (and it is no accident, since it reappears during the repeat of the exposition); and there is a speedup in the movement’s coda that makes the ending seem rushed. The Largo is pretty enough, although it is a touch fast in spots and a bit episodic. The orchestra’s excellent pianissimo playing is a highlight. The scherzo is quick and matter-of-fact; the trio could have used more bounce. The finale begins well, with ringing brass and well-articulated strings, and is generally energetic until the quieter sections, when it subsides and flags emotionally. And there is a huge slowdown before the coda that is wholly unjustified and contrary to the composer’s intentions. Alsop seems to be trying hard to do something different with this well-known work, but she would have served it better by letting the Baltimore Symphony play it straight, with the lovely sound of which the orchestra is so clearly capable. Alsop is a capable and interesting conductor, and one whose enthusiasm for modern music seems quite genuine. Perhaps, in time, she will develop similar enthusiasm for more-familiar works.

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