An Age Of Specialization
In today's fiercely competitive, but ever-shrinking market for classical music, the surest path to success is specialization. Ambitious young conductors have learned from the example of their elders to take the music of a particular period or nationality, obscure composer or school of composition, and make it definitively their own. Having established a reputation in their select area of expertise, they can then gain entry to the core repertory, begin their ascent on the twin peaks of Beethoven and Brahms, and — here's the important part--prove that they really and truly belong in the big leagues. Nicholas Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner, both of whom have now recorded all of the Beethoven and most of the Brahms symphonies, began their careers specializing in early music. Osmo Vanska, whose first recording was the complete Sibelius symphonies, has now begun a Beethoven cycle with his new orchestra in MInnesota. And Sir Simon Rattle was first an exponent of British music (a surefire career path for English conductors), then moved on to contemporary and modern works. Now, of course, he's tossing off complete Beethoven cycles with his new orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Credibility Issue
Which is to say, specialization works. But not in every instance. There are, for example, specialists of one kind or another who are still waiting their turn at conducting Beethoven or Brahms: Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwarz, Valery Gergiev, to name only three. And for those who do get the chance, there's still one major obstacle to overcome: skepticism. It's easy to forget now the incredulity that greeted Leonard Bernstein's initial forays into Brahms. How could someone who did so well with the relative simplicities of Copland somehow rise to the intellectual rigor and seriousness of Brahms? Of course, the same question might well be asked of Bernstein's former student Marin Alsop, who has thus far limited herself to performances of modern (Bernstein, Barber) and contemporary (Glass, Torke, Rouse) American works. So, now that she's taken this important step with its potential for both peril and possibility, how does she fare?
In brief, Alsop shows some promise as a conductor of Brahms. For one thing, she does not serve up the thick, unpalatable blancmange that some young conductors mistake for "traditional" Brahms. Alsop favors a balanced, transparent orchestral sound: clear textures, flowing and natural tempos, graceful phrasing. In general, her Brahms is lean, light on its feet, and refreshingly direct.
In the first movement, she builds and sustains the tension impressively over the course of a long, eventful span, repeat included. If her second movement is more intimate than grand, more singing than intense, it still manages to please the ear. In the third movement, Alsop doesn't draw a sharp contrast between the scherzo and the trio, so the mood is uniformly relaxed and leisurely; truly grazioso, almost pastoral.
After all that, it's sad to report that the last movement disappoints. Other conductors have slowed for the C-major theme and managed to get away with it, but Alsop isn't one of them. Her gear-shifting is too obvious, and needlessly stresses and complicates the overall structure. After the naturalness of all that precedes it, the fourth movement comes off sounding disjointed, episodic.
But in the end, it's an unnerving cautiousness that undermines her here. In his New York Philharmonic recording of the First, Bernstein, gear-shifter supreme, can't resist caressing the big theme, and as a result he experiences the same kind of structural problems that Alsop does here. But, structurally flawed though it may be, his version is boldly phrased and volatile, full of energy and imagination. You might not return to his Brahms First often, but it certainly seizes and commands one's attention. Alsop, on the other hand, is so concerned with questions of balance and proportion that she loses track of the inner drama. It's not just the return of C-major we should be hearing in the finale, but ecstasy. If there is a bottom line in Brahms, it's this: there can be absolutely no sense of holding back. Compare the present recording to the hugely underrated performance by Klaus Tennstedt with the same orchestra and you'll have an immediate sense of what's missing. For Alsop, the Philharmonic plays excellently. For Tennstedt, they blow the roof off the building.
Tomorrow Is Another Day
Still, the virtues Alsop shows in the first three movements make me look forward to the next installment in this projected cycle of all four symphonies. Hey, at the bargain-basement prices Naxos charges, I'm always willing to take a chance. I just have two recommendations, one for the engineers and one for Maestro Alsop. To the engineers, I'd recommend simply moving us closer to the orchestra. In this recording, we're too far back, and the distance smudges inner voices. Alsop's approach could have profited from more immediacy. And for Maestro Alsop, my advice is this: next time round (please!), a little more "oomph" in the last movement.
I just realized I've said nothing about the two overtures. Over the course of several decades of listening, I may finally have had enough of these two counterweights, having perhaps overindulged in my early years. I recently heard a performance of the Academic Festival by Sir Thomas Beecham that was so full of verve and hearty detail that it made me long for the days when music was a reflection of larger-than-life-size personalities. It seemed to put many other merely serviceable performances, including Alsop's, into the shadows. As for the Tragic, I'm always surprised at how many conductors, including Alsop, play this music without the slightest regard for its title. There should be a difference between a tragic experience and having a migraine headache. Alsop's version (alas, like most) is far too composed and genteel. Still, if you do opt for this production, it's probably going to be for its promise, not its accomplishment. In which case, these two good, but certainly not great performances will serve as perfect companions to the symphony, with all its pluses and minuses.