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
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
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.
by Bob Briggs and Brian