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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphonic Variations, op.78 (1877) [22:48]
Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, op.95 (1893) [41:56]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live 8-10 June 2007 (op.95), 14-15, 17 June 2007 (op.78), Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570714 [64:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Marin Alsop became Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the start of the 2007/08 season so this present recording – their first together, I believe – was made very shortly before her tenure began formally. Previously she’s made a cycle of the Brahms symphonies for Naxos, recordings which were generally well received, so a progression to Dvořák is in many ways a logical step. It might be wondered quite legitimately whether we need another New World on CD when the catalogue is not exactly short of alternatives. However, I guess Naxos were keen to have a version in their catalogue conducted by one of their star names and when the results are as fresh and enjoyable as is the case here then there’s always room for a new version of this much-loved symphony.

Even though Miss Alsop had not formally assumed the Music Directorship of this orchestra when these performances were given it seems clear that a rapport had already been established between her and the players. The playing is at all times alert and there’s no question of routine, even though most of the orchestra members have probably played the symphony countless time before – though they may have been a little less conversant with Symphonic Variations. 

The reading of the symphony is a fine, direct one. In the first movement, after a caringly phrased introduction, the main allegro is urgent, with crisp rhythms. The second subject is warmly presented, though there’s no loss of momentum. The solemn chords at the start of the slow movement are well weighted and the following plangent cor anglais solo has just the right degree of expression. This movement is distinguished by some poetic playing and I enjoyed especially the oboe solo in the second subject.

The scherzo is very quick, though not too hectic. The playing has real verve. Miss Alsop doesn’t relax over much in the trio but the phrasing is engaging. The finale is similarly fast and taut – the reading is brisk and buoyant. I was momentarily disconcerted by a brief ritardando at 8:41. This took me by surprise and although the pace is soon picked up once again I thought that this little gesture rather impeded the momentum of the movement as a whole. Still, this is a very minor quibble indeed and in no way did it mar my enjoyment of the symphony as a whole.

The Symphonic Variations is a most engaging work. It consists of a good, malleable theme and twenty-seven variations, which are compact and inventive, and culminates in a fugue. The writing for orchestra is most accomplished. Miss Alsop leads a very persuasive performance, which is extremely well played. The Baltimore strings make a lovely sound for her and there’s also some sparkling woodwind playing to enjoy. Indeed, as in the symphony one feels that the orchestra is on its collective mettle.

These performances are captured in clear, pleasing sound and although these are live recordings there’s no audience noise whatsoever. On the evidence of this disc Miss Alsop’s partnership with her new orchestra promises much and has been launched auspiciously.

John Quinn

see also Reviews by Bob Briggs and Brian Wilson



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