October 04, 2007


Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 4-9. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

John Corigliano: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, “The Red Violin”; Sonata for Violin and Piano. Joshua Bell, violin; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop (Concerto); Jeremy Denk, piano (Sonata). Sony. $18.99.

      There’s life in the old chaconne yet. These two recordings show that this form – which dates back to the 16th century and was most popular in the 17th and 18th – survived through the 19th century and all the way to the 21st. A chaconne is simply a set of variations, almost always in triple time, on a repeated set of chords; there is often a recurring bass line (ground bass) as well. It is partly because Brahms chose to end his fourth and final symphony with a magnificent chaconne that Marin Alsop’s performance of the work is the best in her Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Alsop is better at detail than at grand conceptualizations, and her attentiveness to individual elements of this work’s finale – while Brahms himself provides the broad overview – produces a thrilling and very well-played symphonic conclusion.

      The first three movements are top-notch as well. The first is warm, expansive and broad, with good balance of strings and brass. If it is a tad episodic, with individual sections better than its overall shape, this is mostly the result of Alsop’s typical approach to complex music. The second movement features lovely horn tone at the opening and a stately, detail-oriented approach throughout. It does bog down a bit at times, but not for long. And the relationship of upper and lower strings is excellent, as are the horn chorales. The brief third movement gets some real and welcome humor here – it is marked Allegro giocoso, but some conductors forget the “giocoso” – emerging as jovial but not light, with horns once again outstanding, this time in the Trio. Alsop’s performance may not be one for the ages, but it is a fine one in almost every way, and it still leaves her room to grow interpretatively.

      The seven Hungarian Dances that fill out the CD are not much more than filler. Brahms himself orchestrated Nos. 1, 3 and 10 from his first dance set (originally written for two pianos), and various other arrangers have essayed the rest. These versions are by Peter Breiner and were commissioned for this Naxos recording. They are not very idiomatic and are packed with percussion – a fresh look, perhaps, but not a very Brahmsian one. The performances are all right but not exceptional. No. 2 is a little plodding, although the middle section has nice rhythm. Neither it nor No. 4 is very warm or emotional – the heart that Alsop wears on her sleeve is an artificial one. No. 4 does have some good wind scoring, though. No. 5 is a little cool, and the percussion use is odd; the same is true of No. 6, in which snare drums are intrusive. No. 7 is simply so-so, and No. 8 lacks a sense of mystery. No. 9 sounds more like an English country dance than a Hungarian one, thanks to its cymbals, stately pacing and lack of rhythmic fluidity. It is the symphony, and notably its final chaconne, that is the gem here.

      An extended chaconne that sounds little like Brahms’ (and even less like its baroque predecessors) opens John Corigliano’s Violin Concerto, which is based on his Oscar-winning score for the film, The Red Violin. Alsop excels in this music, too, playing it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, of which she has just become Music Director. The chaconne starts this concerto and is its longest movement. The mysterious and portentous opening, filled with swirling romanticism, gives Joshua Bell a chance to showcase his full sound and remarkable comfort with rapid rhythmic changes. And the Baltimore players are with him every step of the way – this is a live recording, but soloist and orchestra meld as well as if they were in a studio and had the chance for plenty of retakes. Bell’s lovely tone unites all the tempo changes and instrumental outbursts, while Alsop keeps the orchestra on an equal footing with the soloist at all times – even as the movement meanders (in contrast to Brahms, who uses the chaconne form as a unifying structure).

      Corigliano’s work is largely tonal, but not dogmatically so, and its three later movements are all interestingly titled. The second, Pianissimo Scherzo, is aptly named – it is clever, with interesting orchestration and with the violin making sounds as much as music. The third movement, Andante flautando, is warm and pretty, although not deep. The conclusion, Accelerando Finale, starts with the violin almost “fiddling” and features squeaks and rattles in the orchestra – plus an acceleration section that sounds like Arthur Honegger’s impression of a steam engine in Pacific 231. But there is slow music here, too, and a genuine “acceleration contest” only in the last 90 seconds. Corigliano’s concerto often sounds like expanded film music – which is, after all, what it is – but it has some beauty to go with its cleverness, and Bell, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony certainly play it for all it is worth.

      The Violin Sonata is a more modest work, with less cleverness for its own sake. The first movement has good violin-piano balance, angular themes, and strong and varied rhythms. The second is relaxed, more flowing and more rhythmically even. The third is slow, with a serious piano-only opening; the piano is more dissonant and the violin quieter and more tonal here. The finale is a fine tension release, with bounce and lots of scurrying, including an almost cartoonish middle section and a playful ending after several false ones. Bell seems to be just as comfortable here as in the concerto, and Jeremy Denk keeps the piano on an equal footing with the violin in a work that is more a partnership of equals than a display piece for the string player.

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