New Baltimore Symphony/Marin Alsop recordings focus on Dvorak, Gershwin
Never mind that sales figures are rarely worth mentioning (you have to be a Lang Lang or Gustavo Dudamel to light up the charts). If a few hundred discs are sold, most folks are happy. A few thousand, and they're ecstatic. Of course, things were much better in the old days, when record companies could afford to devote a small portion of their budgets to producing a lot of classical material while making tons off of pop and rock products. But it's still possible to find outlets, or, like a lot of orchestras have done lately, create your own label.
The Baltimore Symphony, which went just about unrecorded for nearly a decade (missing the Temirkanov years entirely, except for one in-house promo CD), benefited considerably with the arrival of music director Marin Alsop. She brought a valuable Naxos connection with her, and that company quickly added BSO products to their inventory -- a Dvorak symphony cycle (the initial entry, the "New World," earned great reviews) and Bernstein's "Mass" (nominated for a Grammy). The newest release in the Dvorak project, devoted to Symphonies No. 7 and 8, is another attractive recording that reconfirms the solid shape of the BSO with Alsop at the helm.
At the same time, Alsop and the BSO can also be found on a new release by another label, Decca, this one devoted to the Gershwin works for piano and orchestra recorded last fall at Meyerhoff Hall with starry soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. This hot recording should provide a nice boost for the orchestra's beyond-Baltimore profile, the way the Sony CD of Corigliano's "Red Violin" Concerto did back at the start of Alsop's tenure, when she and the BSO backed another of today's classical biggies, Joshua Bell.
My guess is that the "Thibaudet Plays Gershwin" CD will do especially well, sales-wise. The composer is still very popular internationally, and so is Thibaudet (he's the only who gets a photo -- a cool one with shades -- on the CD). What should really help move this item off of shelves and download sites is
The results are engaging across the board. Thibaudet is one of the rare classical pianists who can swing naturally; his playing has a spontaneous edge, an abundance of color and, of course, superb virtuosity. By the same token, Alsop is one of the rare classical conductors who can swing naturally. She gets this music innately, knows how to pace it, bend it, push it. And the BSO responds with an impressive mix of fluency and character. It's a fun recording that stands up well in a crowded field.
There are, of course, lots and lots of Dvorak recordings, too. Making a major mark in this repertoire isn't the easiest thing for any conductor to do, not with so many distinctive performances already on disc. But Alsop has a genuine affinity for the composer's music and, as the "New World" recording made clear, can deliver the goods.
A side-by-side comparison with some vintage gems from the vaults might not always be favorable to her interpretation. Listen, for example, to the opening of Symphony No. 7 led in the 1960s by Istvan Kertesz with the London Symphony (the Kertesz Dvorak cycle has long been a benchmark) and you'll hear some compelling dynamic accents that add extra tension; Alsop's approach is more even-tempered and, well, a little duller.
That sort of contrast can be heard in other spots as well, but Alsop holds her own in terms of the big picture, leading a performance that ultimately carries substantial expressive weight. Same for Symphony No. 8, which emerges with lots of character and warmth. In both works, the BSO produces a vivid, disciplined sound.
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