October 11, 2012


Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Alternative version of “Un bal” with cornet obbligato; Le corsaire—Overture. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

It is generally expected nowadays that top-flight conductors can handle any music equally well – unlike the situation in the past, when conductors tended to specialize in particular composers, eras, or musical forms (symphonies or operas, for example).  The result of the modern expectation is that conductors still do better with music to which their interests and emotions gravitate, but spend just as much time delivering serviceable but scarcely scintillating performances of works with which they are not, for whatever reason, equally comfortable.  This seems particularly true with American conductors who are well-known champions of newer music and music by American composers: they can handle the standard European repertoire well enough to get by, but they have little of interest to say about it and seem to program well-known works primarily to draw audiences to the concert hall to hear less-known, often more-modern pieces to which the conductors have a stronger commitment.

      This explains the rather pedestrian readings of Berlioz and Mahler works led by Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, respectively.  There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances of these justly famed first symphonies, but nothing particularly outstanding about them, either, and certainly no reason to select these recordings rather than the many better ones available.  Berlioz is not usually thought of as a symphonist, but in fact he wrote four works in the form – albeit a form that he so stretched and modified that it is sometimes close to unrecognizable.  The four are the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830, Harold in Italy (essentially a symphony with viola obbligato) of 1834, the choral Roméo et Juliette of 1839, and the ceremonial and rather backward-looking Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale of 1840 (written originally for 200 winds!).  Each of these works is interesting and musically distinctive, but the Symphonie Fantastique is the one most often performed and the one that most influenced later composers – being, for example, the first work utilizing a kind of leitmotif in the manner that Wagner would later develop and elevate.  Slatkin’s performance of the symphony is rather plodding: he favors slower tempos that seem to stretch the “Scène aux champs” interminably and hold back the excesses of the finale to such a degree that the witches seem rather too well-behaved.  “Un bal” has a nice lilt, but the waltz is slower and a bit heavier than it should be – although it is a nice touch to include on the CD the later version of the movement with cornet solo (which, however, adds nothing to the texture of the music).  The Orchestra National de Lyon plays the music well but is capable of greater intensity than Slatkin requires – as is shown in Le corsaire, in which the conductor lets the orchestra cut loose, resulting in a very upbeat and attractively scurrying overture.  There is nothing particularly problematic in Slatkin’s Symphonie Fantastique, but nothing particularly revelatory either.

      Nor does Alsop bring much to bear on Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 – another trailblazing first symphony.  Alsop has won numerous awards and accolades for her commitment to classical-music accessibility, her championing of modern American works, her outreach programs, and her incorrect identification as the first woman to head a major American orchestra (an assertion that needlessly denigrates JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic).  But Alsop seems to have little patience for more-standard repertoire, and no great liking for it.  Mahler has certainly become “standard” in the last 50 years, but good conductors continue to find ways to highlight his music’s very distinctive and forward-looking elements.  Alsop, though, seems mostly interested in getting the symphony over with.  The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra here lacks the richness and sumptuous tone that are so important in Mahler, and there is nothing idiomatic at all in Alsop’s handling of the music’s gorgeous flow – it is hard to believe she even knows what a ländler is.  The third and fourth movements are better than the first two, although the funeral march is played without piquancy or irony and the finale’s excitement does not carry the emotional weight that Mahler intended it to have.  This live performance from September 2008 moves along smartly but ultimately without soul: Alsop does not seem to have much feeling for this music – which is ironic, since she often cites Leonard Bernstein as a mentor, and it was Bernstein more than any other conductor who brought Mahler’s music into the mainstream.

      Unlike Berlioz and Mahler, Tchaikovsky did not make a big splash with his first symphony – indeed, the joke used to be that Tchaikovsky wrote only three symphonies: the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth.  All six of his symphonies are better known today, but certainly the last three remain the most popular.  And Vladimir Jurowski, thankfully, does a much better job with Nos. 4 and 5 than he did in his previous LPO recording of Nos. 1 and 6.  Some of Jurowski’s tendency to tinker with the music remains, notably in slowdowns and speedups in the first movement of No. 4.  But this vast movement, essentially a self-contained tone poem, seems to invite conductors to find ways to bring out its flow and emotions, and Jurowski’s tempo changes are not too extreme.  The second movement here flows well, and the third is very well played indeed – the London Philharmonic strings really shine in their extended pizzicato sections.  The most impressive movement, though, is the finale, which feels even more fast-paced than it is because of the tremendous verve that Jurowski draws from the orchestra.  The excitement builds to an absolutely smashing climax that must surely have had the audience at this March 2011 performance on its feet – although the live recording, thankfully, includes no applause and, for that matter, no audible audience noise.

      Symphony No. 5 was also recorded live, in May 2011, and this too is a worthy performance.  The very opening is not quite as deeply emotional as it could be, but the main theme of the first movement strides forth boldly, and the orchestra’s full and elegant sound fits the movement well.  The horn theme in the second movement is especially beautiful, although the movement as a whole is on the cool side, as if Jurowski is so determined to avoid wallowing in Tchaikovskian excess that he dials way back on the symphony’s emotive intensity.  The gentleness of the movement’s ending, though, is deeply affecting.  Gentleness is also the watchword in the third movement, which flows smoothly and just a touch wistfully.  The finale opens strongly, after which its main theme is taken quickly and powerfully, producing a propulsive movement that, if lacking in subtlety, certainly is not short on activity.  Unfortunately, Jurowski slows down so much just before the coda that the full-orchestra rest sounds as if it is the symphony’s conclusion; then, when the actual major-key coda appears, it seems less well integrated than usual into what has come before, almost like an afterthought.  But it is undeniably exciting – here as in the Fourth, Jurowski pushes the orchestra at a bang-up pace.  But then, for some reason, he slows down the final chords significantly and quite unnecessarily, vitiating the power of what has come before.  And in a production oddity, the engineers for this performance (who are not the same ones as for the Fourth) do include the audience’s applause, which in truth is less deserved here than at the end of Symphony No. 4.  Both these performances are certainly creditable, and both are very well played, but neither shows significant sensitivity to Tchaikovsky or offers any new insights into his music.

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