October 20, 2005


Brahms: Symphony No. 2; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10, 17-21. Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; The Nightingale. Robert Craft conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Rite) and Philharmonia Orchestra (Nightingale). Naxos. $7.99.

     Marin Alsop’s Brahms cycle really hits its stride with this release.  The “happy symphony” (Brahms’ own name for his No. 2) has never sounded happier – or, more precisely in light of its scale and orchestration, more jovial.  Alsop, a detail-oriented conductor, seemed a bit overwhelmed in her recent recording of Brahms’ First, missing the work’s sweep and grandeur in her efforts to bring out details of its construction.  But No. 2 faces no such problems.  Yes, there are some unusual details highlighted in the first movement, and some instances of unexpected balance, but there is also a sense of the cohesiveness of the whole movement, combined with real warmth – notably at the start of the coda.  The second movement’s tempo seems a touch fast at the start, but Alsop’s reading is convincing on its own terms.  The gently lilting third movement rocks along very pleasantly, and then Alsop has the orchestra cut loose with joy at the start of the finale – retaining rhythmic drive and intensity even as she picks out particular details to highlight (staccato passages, for example).  This is a lovely and effective performance.

     Eight Hungarian Dances – the first three orchestrated by Brahms himself, the others by Dvořák – make delightful encores.  Alsop never met a grace note she didn’t like – listen to No. 3 for confirmation.  She handles each of these pieces individually rather than as part of a set.  No. 20, for example, begins very slowly, with such strong swells of sound that the rhythm practically gets lost – but the middle section is as clear as a listener could wish.  No. 21, in contrast, is straightforward and bouncy, with a very fast middle section.  A recording by Alsop of all 21 Brahms Hungarian Dances would be an excellent idea.

     Robert Craft’s Stravinsky cycle hit its stride with the first note of Naxos’ “Robert Craft Collection” and has never flagged.  Craft is an absolute master of this music, negotiating its complex rhythms and difficult orchestral balances and vocal/instrumental relationships with apparent ease.  His version of The Rite of Spring shows what all the fuss was about at the famous riot at the work’s 1913 premiere.  This Rite, recorded in 1995, sounds magical and ultra-modern, intense and filled with otherworldly beauty.  It is hard to think that it is nearly a century old: Craft treats it as if the ink is still wet on the manuscript.  The Nightingale is handled with equal care.  The complexly orchestrated one-act opera, based on a fable by Hans Christian Andersen and dating to 1914, is excellently sung in this 1997 recording.  Soprano Olga Trifonova as the nightingale and tenor Robert Tear as the fisherman are particularly good.  The instruments of the orchestra get as much attention from Craft as do the singers, and a good thing, too, since the percussion-heavy scoring is a wonderfully exotic mélange of imitation birdsong.  Listeners may not know what harmonics are or recognize the ones played on the harp or the unusual ones made possible on the cellos by retuning some of their strings.  But Craft makes sure everyone clearly hears the exotic colorations that not only transport the audience to China, where the work is set, but also indicate that this is both a fairy tale and a celebration of the life-affirming power of music.

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