February 01, 2007


Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Glass: Heroes Symphony; The Light. Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Brahms’ Third Symphony would not seem a particularly congenial work for Marin Alsop to conduct. Alsop does well in episodic pieces in which she can treat every element as a miniature, but the Brahms Third is the composer’s most tightly knit symphony, requiring sweep and expansiveness throughout to emphasize the intense connectedness of the movements. So Alsop’s top-notch performance with the London Philharmonic is something of a pleasant surprise. She lets the music flow naturally, giving it only a few of her characteristic emphases (successfully at the end of the first movement, less so in speeding up in the middle of the second). The notoriously difficult rhythms of the finale are handled with aplomb by conductor and orchestra alike, and if the performance does not quite have all-encompassing grandeur, it has a great deal of style and a sense that Alsop thoroughly understands this music – and can communicate that understanding to listeners.

      Brahms’ Haydn Variations (whose theme is not really by Haydn) get more of what might be called the “expected” Alsop treatment. Each becomes a small work in itself, with the lovely variations numbers four (Andante con moto) and seven (Grazioso) getting especially loving treatment – expansive, gentle and very well played. The finale of the set is not quite as triumphant as one might wish, and in general the more animated variations do not fare as well as the slower ones. But once again, it is clear that Alsop has her own vision of this piece, and it is highly successful on her own terms.

      By the time Philip Glass wrote his Heroes Symphony in 1996, the concept of a symphony as a unified work based on thematic development and careful key structure was long gone. This piece is more a suite than a symphony, its six movements unconnected in any way with each other, its totality lacking any sort of unified vision. Hence, this work is a fine match for Alsop’s talents: here, she can treat each movement as a sort of tone poem, shaping and forming it without regard to any overall sweep. And Alsop does just that, with the skill she regularly brings to performances of 20th-century music. Nevertheless, the work is not an unqualified success – the problem coming more from Glass than from Alsop. This is a composer who never met an ostinato he didn’t like, and who has little idea of how to end what he begins. Heroes Symphony is based on the David Bowie/Brian Eno album Heroes, just as an earlier Glass work, Low Symphony (1993), was based on the duo’s album Low. Adeptly orchestrated and with some interesting instrumental effects, including dramatic use of tuned percussion, Heroes Symphony still comes across as emotionally empty. Alsop’s flashy performance does nothing to counter the notion that this work functions entirely at a surface level, and that there is certainly nothing heroic about it.

      Yet Heroes Symphony is more effective than The Light (1987), a work of grand intentions in which the Glass preoccupation with ostinato becomes full-fledged fanaticism. This single-movement work is half the length of the entire six-movement Heroes Symphony, so it requires a degree of shaping and forward motion that Alsop’s performance does not provide. Yet it may be that no conductor could do better. The work pays homage to the Michelson-Morley experiment that confirmed the uniform speed of light and opened the way for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This would-be grandiose tribute has a six-minute slow section followed by a fast one that might have worked at the same length but instead goes on three times as long. And it does go on – and on and on and on, to the point at which the hammering, repetitive thematic material is actually painful to hear. It’s a good thing that scientific progress isn’t nearly as boring as Glass’s interpretation of it. Alsop runs through this work matter-of-factly – which, as a matter of fact, makes it almost unlistenable. But the Bournemouth Symphony plays gamely and with great skill, and Alsop certainly deserves credit for continuing to bring close attention to modern and unfamiliar music – even, in this case, a piece that does not hold up under close scrutiny.

No comments:

Post a Comment