Dohnányi: Variations on a Nursery Song; Symphonic Minutes; Suite in F-sharp Minor. Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.
Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.
America’s two most prominent female conductors have very different approaches to music of the Romantic era, or imbued with that era’s spirit. JoAnn Falletta, who often explores less-known works of that time with the Buffalo Philharmonic, revels in the excesses of the music without overemphasizing them, allowing the spirit of a composer such as Ernö von Dohnányi to come through naturally. Dohnányi had the same teachers as Bartók, but was far more strongly influenced by German Romanticism and far less inclined toward Hungarian influences in his work, although he did use rhythms of his native land to give his music some special coloration. Dohnányi was also a fine pianist, as is shown in the bravura piano part of his 1914 Variations on a Nursery Song, a once-popular work along the same lines as Rachmaninoff’s 20-years-later Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. That is, it is clever, bright, filled with virtuosic passages and not intended to have any depth of expression. It is also a great deal of fun. The nursery song is the same ditty on which Mozart wrote variations – the one known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Dohnányi deliberately builds up to the trivial tune with a hugely overdone introduction that sounds like something out of Wagner; and then the variations themselves twist and turn the nursery song practically every which way except inside-out. Eldar Nebolsin plays the work with great flair, and Falletta directs it with enthusiasm and not a hint of condescension – which is just the right approach. Falletta does equally well with Symphonic Minutes (1933), which requires considerable orchestral virtuosity and includes its own impressive set of variations – a form in which Dohnányi was skilled and to which he clearly gravitated. In fact, there are also variations in the third work here, the Suite in F-sharp Minor, written in 1908-09, when the composer was just entering his 30s. This is an expansive piece, reminiscent in some ways of Tchaikovsky’s suites: like those, it has a symphonic quality about it even without the thematic and structural unity of a symphony. The orchestration is quite impressive: Dohnányi had a good feel for the capabilities of instruments from cor anglais to clarinet to timpani, and all the works on this CD show fine craftsmanship and excellent grasp of form. And Falletta delivers all the performances with élan.
Marin Alsop’s recording of Dvořák’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies is somewhat less satisfactory and gets a (+++) rating. Alsop’s advocacy is not of lesser-known Romantic works but of more-modern music, especially American music; she is not a particularly convincing conductor of the standard repertoire. She has a wonderful orchestra – the Baltimore Symphony’s sound is smooth, rounded and warm, with notably high-quality brass. And the live recording, made at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore, is resonant and rich. But Alsop’s interpretations are ever-so-slightly off much of the time, as if she is just going through the motions of presenting music to which she has little personal commitment. The Seventh Symphony, in D minor, is a towering achievement and perhaps Dvořák’s best, but Alsop handles it in a matter-of-fact way from the very beginning, when the mysterious growling that opens the first movement sounds like just another set of introductory bars. What is missing is a sense of the grandeur that Dvořák built into this work; and when Alsop tries to bring out some of the symphony’s deep emotion, she lapses into mannerisms that are frankly annoying, notably by slowing down before a climax as if to make that climactic moment more intense – an approach that stretches things out without making the music sound better. The Eighth, a much brighter and more cheerful work, fares better here; Alsop seems more at home with it. The mannerisms are still present, but they are less obvious and therefore less intrusive. And this work depends heavily on brass for its effect, so the orchestra’s strength in that section is a major plus. There is nothing really wrong with Alsop’s handling of this symphony, but her reading is not idiomatic and not especially committed – it is all right, but far from inspired. As female conductors become more accepted as heads of major orchestras, they are proving to have all the skills and all the idiosyncrasies of male conductors, and to make just as many good decisions and missteps – which, when you think about it, is really no surprise at all.