Marin Alsop’s recording of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony met with critical acclaim
from many quarters, including multiple reviews on this site, where it was made a Bargain of the Month. I was one of the evidently few people who was not too impressed; it seemed to me that there was nothing particularly wrong with the reading, but also that nothing really distinguished it from the competition. My view of Alsop’s Eighth Symphony, contained on this new release, is roughly the same. Regrettably, I have more negative feelings about her Seventh.
The problems with this performance of No. 7 begin immediately, or, rather, after 21 seconds. That dissonant, rather jarring three-note horn call that interrupts the main theme is timid and placed far back in the orchestral balance; the horn sounds like a wallflower who has contributed a fragment to the dialogue which the main characters then ignore. A minor problem, perhaps, but in a few paragraphs I will explain why it is symptomatic of a major one.
The first movement proceeds with a rather limited dynamic range and a curious sense of nothing happening. I say “curious” because Alsop has in fact chosen a very fast tempo for this movement, one of the speediest I have ever heard at 10:14 (compare with Suitner
’s 10:40, Ancerl
’s 10:57, or Kubelík’s 11:24). For all its speed, this is a performance bereft of drama, partly because the horns and timpani are muffled (the first timpani stroke, which should be at 0:55, is nearly inaudible), and partly because there is very little contrast between the hushed, lyrical, but very fast second subject and the equally anxious music surrounding it. There is a sense of rushing at spots like 3:03, in the usually so expressive woodwind dialogue which follows, and in the development, too, at 4:40-5:00. Listen, too, to the arrival of the movement’s volcanic climax as it emerges from the calm from 7:50 on. In other recordings, the climax looms over us, or rears its head; we feel like we have awakened a sleeping giant. On the Alsop recording, it all just sort of happens, as if we knew it was coming the whole time.
The slow movement is better, perhaps because it is harder to really misjudge (although Stephen Gunzenhauser, also on Naxos, manages to do so), and the scherzo crisply balances the two opening themes (violins versus cellos) against each other, but the cellists get lost in the balance quite quickly (0:37) and the woodwinds do too (1:00). The trio features lovely oboe and clarinet solos but string playing which could have been more aggressive.
In the finale Alsop again indulges the temptation to hurtle through at the expense of detail. Listen to the trombones’ snarling menace from 4:14-4:28 on the Leonard Bernstein recording with the New York Philharmonic and be amazed. Here, by contrast, from 3:54 on until the crisis point, the trombones make basically no mark. The decision to speed by the recapitulation (5:40 to 6:00), in which by my count there are at least five independent lines of dialogue going on in the orchestra, is especially regrettable because the sound quality blurs the back of the Baltimore orchestra together anyway. All I can really hear distinctly are the violins, violas and flutes.
My view of Marin Alsop’s effort here is not really as negative as it sounds. I understand her mistake, and it is a common one. She was evidently trained to believe the common description of this work as a Brahms symphony outfitted in Czech garments; she sees this as Dvorák’s reply to the Germanic tradition. As a consequence, there are passages of this reading which frankly very successfully make the music sound like it was written by Brahms himself.
How is this achieved? First, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a generous string tone but rather anonymous winds. Alsop and the recording engineers both play to the strengths of the orchestra by making this a string symphony with accompaniment. Second, Alsop softens the edges, introducing legato phrasing in places where I would rather hear staccato. Even when the playing is sharper, it lacks fire.
Third, some of the curiosities of Dvorák’s orchestration are glossed over; whither the horns and their quirky part at 8:49 in the first movement? For that matter, where are the horns at 5:00 on the same track? Fourth, at the faster tempos which we have here, woodwind phrases which seem spontaneous in the more idiomatic readings of Suitner, Kubelík and Bernstein instead sound glib or premeditated. The flute lines at 3:21, 4:54 and 5:30 (first movement again) epitomize this false spontaneity; they sound rather like a politician delivering a joke which has been written by a panel of ghost writers.
Fifth, Alsop glosses over what I consider to be the main idea of the first movement: the disturbing, out-of-place three-note cell which disrupts the main theme as early as 0:13. It is not really a melodic idea; it appears, instead, as a rhythmic one, taking up a variety of pitches and intervals over the course of the movement, but always with common traits: three notes long, a disruption of the goings-on, and ending on an unsettling chromatic note. Some of the appearances of this motif in the first movement include (timed to Alsop’s recording): 0:21, 0:25, 0:39, 0:47, 1:30-1:40, 1:53, 1:57, 2:02 (the listener may continue at his or her own pleasure).
Why is this motif important? The whole drama is founded upon it! The entire movement is a quest by the musical materials to find some way to resolve this unresolveable sequence of notes. And they finally do resolve at the very end, at 9:58, thus bringing about the final dying chords. The conflict generated by this little cell of material inspires the first big climax of the movement, leads to the second subject, and then founds much of the development as well as the entire coda. Alsop consistently underplays this idea, from that muffled horn at the 21-second mark to the headlong rush through the coda, which ceaselessly repeats the idea in all its various guises.
The result is a performance which is not particularly bad, I suppose, and which will not disappoint newcomers to the symphony, but with which, to put it bluntly, I disagree. Maybe I am prejudiced - Dvorák has long been my favourite composer - but this symphony is not Brahms in Czech clothing. It is Dvorák himself, in his own voice, at his most unsettling, dramatic, and personal. If you agree with me, try to seek out (or stick to) recordings by the likes of Kubelík, Suitner, and, yes, Leonard Bernstein, who employs very broad tempos in an account four minutes slower than Alsop’s. Bernstein brings out every marvellous detail of the symphony’s motivic architecture and revels in its orchestration, too. If, on the other hand, you believe that the Seventh is a response to the Germanic tradition, know that the Alsop recording carries over her experience from her recent Brahms cycle.
The faults of this Seventh made me very curious to hear Alsop’s Dvorák Eighth. After all, No. 8 has nothing in common with Brahms at all; it is sui generis
, a symphony of joy which takes on a form entirely of Dvorák’s own invention. And, to my surprise, this performance of the Eighth mostly goes very well. The first movement is rather staid and plain in comparison to the interpretations of conductors like Kubelík, Szell, or, most exciting of all, Otmar Suitner on Berlin Classics
. There is a lack of exuberance at many of the climaxes in the Alsop reading (consider the first movement, 1:57) which is largely the responsibility of the reticent brass section and recessed timpani.
The slow movement is lovely, though, and the third is quite elegant, the inner voices of the waltz all audible thanks to sound which is much clearer than it had been in the Seventh. The flautist has an appealingly dark tone in the finale at 3:17, but otherwise this movement is just not as exciting as it has been under other conductors, with other orchestras. The final coda represents another underwhelming climax, and here I noticed that the shyness of the trombones and horns makes the comparatively outspoken trumpets sound rather artificial. Perhaps this has to do with microphone placement?
At least this Eighth does not actively disappoint; it is uninspiring but still rather good. As I have written, and as my colleague Bob Briggs
has also written in his review, the Seventh is less fortunate. Marin Alsop very clearly has a distinctive view of how Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony should go, and I firmly disagree with it. This is not Brahms’ Fifth. Dvorák composed a jarring, even frightening score full of idiosyncrasies, music which should unsettle and confound expectations. The dissonances of the outer movements are meant to be disturbing, not merely distracting. The final coda is nearly apocalyptic in its weight. And the sheer number of tunes and thematic ideas in the Seventh is just as impressive as in the sunnier Eighth. If only Ms Alsop understood.
see also review by Bob