Marin Alsop's recordings of Brahms' first two symphonies were good, at times very good, but not great. In particular, for all her basic musicality, the performances lacked a certain element of excitement, never mind actual risk-taking. So my expectations for this Third, the toughest of them all to conduct, were not that high. After all, some really great Brahmsians, including Toscanini and Furtwängler, have really screwed up this symphony. The latter's performances especially constitute some of the most hideously embarrassing documents ever left by a theoretically great artist. Indeed, in the entire history of the work on disc, there have been perhaps seven or eight truly great performances: Walter (Sony, stereo), Levine (RCA), Wand (his first one with NDR, on RCA), Klemperer (EMI), Jochum (EMI, with this orchestra), Dohnanyi (Warner/Teldec), and perhaps most surprisingly, Solti (Decca).
To this select list, add Alsop. This is not a judgment made lightly, but this is one hell of a fine performance of this most elusive symphony, perhaps closest in character to Dohnanyi's Cleveland version. It's interesting to note the dearth of German or central European orchestras in the above list, and this fact holds a clue to Alsop's success: her ability to keep the textures from becoming too heavy, and to keep Brahms' bass lines moving. Ordinarily, and particularly in the First and Fourth Symphonies, the typically dark, rich German bass is just the ticket, but not here. This symphony, with its obvious homage to Dvorák's Fifth in the same key, and its frequent recourse to syncopated rhythms in the middle registers of the orchestra, needs as much space around the notes as is consistent with lively tempos and well-sprung rhythms.
Part of the problem is of Brahms' own making. While the last three movements offer some of his finest orchestral writing, especially for the woodwinds, the first movement often comes across as a clogged-up mess. Conductors overcompensate for the lack of audible detail by playing the music too slowly. Alsop keeps the music moving, but also clarifies the underlying rhythm quite splendidly. As an example, consider the transition from the first to the second subject, and later on, the triplet accompaniments to the finale's heroic second subject. This is very good Brahms conducting: the tension never sags, no important details go unobserved (note the nicely touched-in contrabassoon just before the recapitulation), and nothing detracts from the evolving symphonic argument.
The Andante features beautifully blended wind playing in its serene outer sections and just the right touch of mystery in the central chorale. Alsop takes great care to observe the written dynamics, a big plus in the ensuing Poco Allegretto, which sounds so much better minus the usual excess of espressivo. Best of all, the finale is spectacular: swiftly exciting, with very present timpani and a tremendously explosive (but remarkably transparent) central climax. The coda captures that special, autumnal glow that Brahms builds into the scoring, but without sacrificing sufficient momentum to bring the work to a fulfilling (as opposed to a merely exhausted) conclusion.
The Haydn Variations makes an excellent coupling, and is equally well done. Alsop's excellent command of rhythm once again is very much in evidence, particularly in the Vivace fifth variation, and even without those darker, heavier bass lines the final passacaglia builds quite effortlessly to a joyous conclusion. Vividly detailed sonics seal the deal. The truth is that very few conductors manage to do all of the Brahms symphonies equally well, which is why the modern tendency to do them in fours is such a pity. This effort bodes well for the conclusion of Alsop's cycle, but at the same time it will be a tough act to follow. I hope she can do it; in the meantime, I'm more than happy to recommend this superb new recording as strongly as possible. [1/22/2007]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com