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Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, December 2010

Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra [Naxos]. The “other” BSO (not Boston!) and Alsop continue their Dvořák symphony cycle with the kind of solid, competent work Alsop has become known for (they also released the 6th, later in the year).

Donald R Vroon
American Record Guide, November 2010

The Baltimore Symphony has long had a warm sound; the strings are dark and creamy. I trace it to Sergiu Comissiona. The orchestra also has a more homogenized sound than many, and the Naxos engineering makes it more so. The microphones seem distant, and some critics might call it muddy or murky; but that can be attractive when you get tired of raw, “in-your-face” sound from other orchestras and recordings (see above).

The smooth, refined sound of the orchestra is perhaps the strongest selling point here. The conductor does a perfectly adequate job but has nothing special to say about the music. The interpretation tends to be episodic; the flow is not seamless and seemingly inevitable. Occasionally she fails to sustain a chord when doing so would have helped. The flow is not good in 8; it’s too emphatic, as if she feels she must make points. The middle of the scherzo (trio) is very smooth and attractive, but its main theme seems a little driven. The coda doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s too similar to what went before; I think it should come as a surprise. The horns in IV sound very good.

These are good performances in many ways—fine for a budget collection. But all our Overview recommendations are better—and some of them are budget priced these days, too.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2010

In a Fanfare 32:2 review of Marin Alsop and her Baltimore band performing Dvořák’s Ninth, I opined that the world at large was not in need of another “New World,” and that beyond appealing to the citizens of Baltimore who could rightfully take pride in their fine orchestra, the recording might not be competitive in the larger market. Though I rated the performance excellent, that did not assuage the ire of one proud Baltimorean who took me to task in the Letters column. From what he wrote, you’d think I had maligned his fair city and its inhabitants, and by extension, its mayor, city council, and chief of police. Not so, I protested in a reply. I was merely pointing out that the Baltimore Symphony, as fine an ensemble as it is, still had a ways to go to claim parity with its sister organizations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Vienna, and Berlin; and that with nearly 200 “New Worlds” to choose from, another one was probably superfluous. I also pointed out that ranking was something we critics were expected to do. If all performances and recordings were equal, the critic would be an extinct species.

Arguably, the D Minor (No. 7) is Dvořák’s greatest symphony. Brahms’s Third was still fresh in Dvořák’s ear when he wrote it. But more interesting are the similarities—arrived at independently—between Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony and Brahms’s Fourth. There’s no way either composer could have heard the other’s work. Dvořák’s completed manuscript is dated March 17, 1885. Brahms was still fussing over his Fourth throughout the summer of 1885; its first performance was given on October 25 of that year. But both symphonies are dark, minor-key works. Their first movements both portend tragic endings and build tension through exacting control over limited motivic material. For Dvořák, this is something relatively new. In fact, it marks a turning point in his symphonic output in much the same way that Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony marks a turning point in his symphonic writing. From Brahms, Dvořák learned the power that lies in restraint. No one can accuse Dvořák in this symphony of rambling on at too great a length or of padding his score with repetition of ideas in inverse proportion to their merit.

The Czech flavor comes to the fore in the third movement, but this Scherzo is in the nature of a furiant, a fast and fiery Bohemian dance with slashing accents and conflicting cross-rhythms. No immediate relief is offered by the Finale as the minor key persists and the catastrophe foreshadowed by the first movement reaches its crisis. Only at the last moment does Dvořák veer away from the precipice, shifting to D Major and snatching triumph from the jaws of tragedy. In the end, Dvořák couldn’t bring himself to plunge headlong into the abyss that awaits us at the end of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Yet still, one senses that the victory in Dvořák’s Seventh is a pyrrhic one; for the D-Major ending gives too little comfort and comes too late.

If the Seventh is Dvořák’s greatest symphony, the Eighth is his most comely. From the unforgettable melody that opens the first movement, to its haimish Adagio, to its lilting, wistful Allegretto, to its celebratory concluding Allegro, the work is one of the composer’s happiest creations, composed in the scenic surroundings of Vysoká u Příbrami in the Bohemian countryside, where Dvořák had purchased a villa in 1884 that made Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara look like a hovel.

Once again, as with Alsop’s earlier recording of Dvořák’s “New World,” the readings and recordings here are in the very good to excellent category. Tempos, a bit slower in some movements and a bit quicker in others in relation to comparative readings, on balance are within normal range. For comparison purposes, I used the Rowicki recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra on Philips (now on Decca). They date from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and sound-wise don’t stand up to the new Naxos or other more recent releases. But I’ve always found Rowicki’s readings to be among the more idiomatic versions I know.

The Baltimore Symphony is well drilled under Alsop and responds to her leadership with earnest enthusiasm. If the strings can’t quite match the heft of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic strings under Kubelík and Abbado, respectively, or the heavy cream of Philadelphia’s strings under Ormandy and Sawallisch, the Baltimore’s winds compensate with pitch-perfect playing and expert teamwork. George Szell also had a special affinity for these works and his recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra are still highly regarded. Nor in this repertoire should anyone overlook the estimable Czech Philharmonic under Václav Neumann. Finally, though I haven’t heard it yet, there’s a very recent recording from the Philharmonia’s “live” series of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies led by Charles Mackerras. His earlier version of the Eighth with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon was not well received by James North in 29:6, but I would expect Mackerras, having studied with Václav Talich at the Prague Academy of music, to know his way around these scores.

If the foregoing paragraph begins to overwhelm with the sheer number of choices available—and I’ve just skimmed the surface—it should at least give you an idea of what Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony are up against. So, as I did in my review of the “New World” from these same forces, I must once again conclude that even excellent, though not special or exceptional performances—though in this case, well worth the price—can unfortunately become lost in an overgrown forest if they don’t stand taller than the rest of the trees.

Julie Amacher
Minnesota Public Radio, September 2010

When Marin Alsop arrived as music director of the Baltimore Symphony in 2007, she brought with her a valuable connection to the recording industry. The end result is several new releases from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which hadn’t recorded in almost a decade. Their first project with Naxos Records was a Dvořák Symphony cycle starting with the “New World” Symphony, which earned rave reviews. Their latest recording in that cycle explores the dramatic contrasts between Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 and 8.

Antonin Dvořák was a Czech musician who avoided his father’s chosen path as a butcher by becoming a violinist, a violist and a composer. Bedrich Smetana may have been the father of Czech music, but it was Dvořák who helped popularize it. He was known for his sunny, outgoing personality, which is heard even in his darkest, moodiest compositions like his Symphony No. 7 in d minor. The opening theme of this symphony came to Dvořák at the Prague railway station. He had gone there to witness the arrival of Hungarian patriots who were coming to the National Theater Festival. Dvořák captures the mood of this political journey by creating an oppressive, somber atmosphere in the first movement. Cellos and violas play the opening theme. Sharp rhythmic upbeats and dramatic crescendos and decrescendos accentuate the political turmoil faced by these anti-Habsburg rebels.

The virtuosic soloists within the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra really shine in the second movement, which is marked Poco adagio. This movement starts with a clarinet melody in F major followed by another melody for flutes and oboes that explores new harmonies. Another theme is introduced by violin and cello, and then the rich colors of the horn explode into a gorgeous theme.

The third movement is the Scherzo (“Vivace”), which is a favorite for most musicians because Dvořák, who spent many years playing in an orchestra himself, gives every member of the orchestra something thrilling to play. Various cross-rhythms make this movement very intriguing. While the violins and violas have three beats per measure, the cello and bassoons have just two, making this a somewhat light-hearted, yet very energetic movement.

Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 8 in G major at his country house in the village of Vysoka, just south of Prague. That peaceful environment freed Dvořák’s mind, allowing him to conceive, almost as an afterthought, the luscious recurring theme in the first movement, played by the cellos, clarinets, bassoons and horns.

The second movement is a reflection of the idyllic surroundings of the Czech countryside. This Adagio is almost a miniature tone poem of village life, with the sounds of a rustic country band and bird songs fluttering in the woodwinds.

A graceful g minor waltz is at the head of the third movement, with a contrasting trio section that Dvořák borrowed from his comic opera, “The Stubborn Lovers.”

The finale is a concoction of wandering variations with numerous orchestral effects, like virtuosic flute passages and high horns blasting their way to the finish line.

Dvořák once said, “Mozart is sunshine.” I think the same can be said of Dvořák. In these recordings from Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra bring new ideas to light in these works, thanks to these crisp performances that let you listen to these dramatic symphonies with fresh ears.

© Howard Smith
Music & Vision, September 2010

‘The Baltimores’ finale sings and blazes with equal compulsion…’

Alsop and her Baltimore players (recording in 2008/09) more than hold their own on a timeline of stellar Dvorak recordings. With their direction these gorgeous symphonies are infused with pellucid, joyous, Bohemian inflexions, a felicitous attention to detail, plus sufficient drama and lyricism for the most discerning of listeners.

Alsop’s pacing is quite magical, and the superb sound captured in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore) reflects the work of producer Steve Epstein, adjunct professor of Classical Music Recording at McGill University (Montreal) and Grammy winning recording engineer Richard King (McGill).

All considered, these are sovereign performances which among modern alternatives emerge unrivalled.

However it’s patently obvious the later symphonies of Antonin Dvorak are well represented on disc and among early recordings one may choose to hear them from great European orchestras and legendary conductors. One such features the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with Václav Talich in splendid idiomatic accounts of both symphonies—No 7 (recorded in 1938) and No 8 (recorded in 1935); both in EMI Abbey Road Studio No 1 (on Naxos Historical Great Conductors—8.111045). Mark Obert-Thorn is both Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer and has done a simply remarkable job of transferring these from HMV DBs.

...To my mind, with Alsop and Vanska, the Baltimore and Minneapolis orchestras are currently among the front runners.

The evidence is here when we switch to Alsop in the Seventh Symphony—its portentous opening bars opening to the broad allegro maestoso punctuated by glowing climaxes, the first lasting 1 minute and 3 seconds from 4’36". Despite unmistakable Czech imprints, she reveals this work as among the composer’s most Brahmsian.

The Poco adagio begins with a hymn-like section after which Dvorák proceeds with occasional billowings; though substantially in yearning mood.

Alsop is keenly alert in nailing the essential, punctuated ebb and flow of the Vivace—Poco meno mosso; Dvorak’s ‘Scherzo’.

Even more she pin-points the final Allegro with the Baltimore players revealing a splendid cognisance of its breadth and exuberant drama.

Much as the New York-born conductor and Maryland orchestra show their paces in Dvorak’s Op 70, they turn in a truly stunning account of the 8th Symphony.

From the familiar G minor opening statement and pristine flute interjection (a recurring feature), then onto the rousing development, the orchestra performs with remarkable conviction and fervour.

The lyrical and robust Adagio with its inspired key changes reveals the sterling quality of each instrumental section; indeed this movement rarely emerges with such abounding positivism.

Alsop calls for disarming lilt and amiable dance-like playing throughout the Allegretto grazioso, this movement concluding with a brief rustic coda.

The Baltimores’ finale sings and blazes with equal compulsion, and at the conclusion I found myself bowled over with the overall impact of this performance.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, August 2010

The amount of felicitous detail here is more than enough to justify purchase, even if you already own one or more versions of either work. Take the slow movement of the Seventh, the delicately drawn cello line at around 6’22”, or the clarity of the Scherzo’s outer sections, though I could have done with a touch more forcefulness from the hammering horns at 4’47”. In the darkly dramatic finale Alsop allows herself just enough expressive leeway to sweeten the pill without spoiling the line—in the cello-dominated second subject, for example, where the pulse eases ever so slightly. Only the first movement struck me as rather too strait-laced, with next to no deviation in tempo throughout. This is restless, autumnal music that surely demands a more rhapsodic approach (compare Kubelík, Rowicki and Dorati), whereas in the Eighth Alsop turns on her heels and opts for subtle expressiveness, delivering one of the most tender accounts of the finale’s wind-down coda that I’ve heard since Bruno Walter. Again the first movement is very “straight” but this time, with less weathered music, the approach works better: no tiresome ritardandos impede the flow and there’s an impressive contrast between chamber-style intimacy in the quieter passages and impressive, full-blown climaxes. The third movement’s Trio is just a little pallid (rather that though than excessive schmaltz) but heard overall the performance works extremely well, and both recordings are thoughtfully balanced.

As to recent rivals in the same coupling, Mackerras and the Philharmonia, recorded live (Signum, 4/10), offer bags of spontaneity and at times even more warmth, though Alsop’s Baltimore orchestra parades a refined tonal profile that pays its own special dividends. Still, as I’ve already suggested, Alsop should please both the eager newcomer on the lookout for a recommendation and the seasoned collector who knows and loves the music but fancies listening between the staves. There’ll be no disappointment on either score.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, July 2010

The cellos’ singing tone is ravishing, and the strings and wind are charmingly delicate…On the evidence here, Marin Alsop’s Dvorak series will be well worth collecting.

Jan Smaczny
BBC Music Magazine, June 2010

This splendidly recorded performance stands very high among available recordings…with Alsop both infectious and persuasively symphonic.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Following Marin Alsop’s highly acclaimed recording of the ‘New World’ symphony, we have two equally thought provoking performances of symphonies that took their inspiration from Dvořák’s homeland. We have become accustomed to the singing quality of Czech orchestras, but Alsop’s view is purposeful that moves away from and questions preconceived ideas as to an ‘idiomatic’ style. Listen to the cello statement and the energy of the first theme that opens the Eighth, Alsop’s fresh-faced approach removing the added inflections to which we have become  accustomed. It also moves the music’s centre of gravity to a taught and urgent account full of dramatic impact, while the following Adagio is equally thrusting forward with the almost inevitable dramatic outburst to end the movement. Don’t expect those string portamentos often used in the following Allegretto, while the central section avoids added rubatos, a new look at instrumental balance bringing a new slant to the coda. With a bright trumpet fanfare, we eventually move into a vivacious account of the finale, driving through the coda to raise the temperature to boiling point. Though we are pointed to moments of internal balance that will make you check out the score, the Seventh brings fewer surprises, though the opening movement is one of the most robust performance I have encountered on disc. The following Adagio goes down a familiar path, and Alsop bounces the music happily along in the following Scherzo. I much enjoy the strong and highly charged view of the finale, and here, as throughout the disc, we have to admire the high quality of the Baltimore musicians. Sound quality in these ‘live’ concert performances is very fine and thankfully shorn of applause. It’s good to have someone taking a new look at Dvořák and we hope there is more to come.

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