Notes and Editorial Reviews
Okay, we all know that at this point no one needs a new Brahms cycle, but this first installment has one thing going for it: Marin Alsop appears to be a fine Brahms conductor. She begins the First Symphony with an introduction that would have made Klemperer sit up and take notice: it's that grand and imposing. Happily, she also launches the allegro (exposition repeat retained) with genuine thrust and energy, while her generous rubato as she relaxes into the second subject is effortlessly managed--and she builds to the recapitulation with plenty of excitement and rhythmic tension. This is the genuine article, make no mistake. The slow movement reveals the same beautifully controlled transitions, the tempo nicely flowing, marred only by an insensitive solo violin, too closely miked.
The third movement reveals one other small flaw in the performance: rather faceless wind playing from clarinets and oboes (to some degree a function of the forward string balances and generous reverberation that otherwise serves the music to impressive effect). Alsop builds the brooding introduction to the finale with an unerring feel for the music's atmosphere, though I wish she had launched the movement proper with a swifter account of the "big tune". To her credit, though, she doesn't lurch forward at the forte counterstatement, but rather accumulates energy naturally. The coda goes really well, with an impressive feeling of culmination, and Alsop takes care to make the trombones audible in the final bars, a nice touch that sets the seal on a very distinguished effort.
The two overtures are no less impressive. Of course, the Academic Festival is practically unkillable, but Alsop's pointed rhythms help project the music's joyous humor while preventing the familiar tunes from sounding foursquare. Her Tragic Overture is one of the best, at a tempo remarkably close to Ancerl's benchmark interpretation--which is to say slowish and implacably serious. At this speed, the rich harmonies of the second subject and throughout the development really tell, and the climaxes have time to register with the necessary impact. I look forward very much to the next installments in this series.
As I said, the market doesn't really need this, but Naxos is right to let Alsop shine in the music she identifies with most strongly, and her Brahms certainly qualifies. Besides, wonderful though it is to conduct lots of Barber, Reich, and Glass, the fact remains that careers are made in the standard repertoire, where comparisons with illustrious interpretations past and present are made. Certainly on evidence here Alsop has nothing to fear from the competition. If the rest of this cycle remains at this high level (that is, if she pegs the finale of the Second Symphony and becomes one of the very few conductors to play the Third really well), then I would say her reputation will be secure for some time to come.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com