Impressive recordings released by former BSO directors


While much attention is focused on Marin Alsop these days, as she gets ready to launch her tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in September, her two immediate predecessors, Yuri Temirkanov and David Zinman, are also on the radar screen.

Recent recordings from the same label, Sony / BMG's RCA Red Seal, find both men achieving impressive results in music by composers they were often associated with during their years at the BSO -- Mahler for Zinman, conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich for Temirkanov, leading the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Zinman, chief conductor of the Tonhalle since 1995, is in the initial stages of a Mahler symphony cycle with the ensemble. The initial releases, Symphony No. 1 and No. 2 (Resurrection), easily demonstrate the rapport Zinman enjoys with his players.

The music-making doesn't necessarily leap out of the speakers and grab hold of you, surprising you with fresh light on familiar phrases or opening up deep emotional wells. Zinman keeps a certain distance from the material, but his meticulously manicured performances are sensibly and sensitively thought-out.

At the start of Symphony No. 1, the music sneaks in so beautifully that the soft, high, long-held A has the effect of sounding as if it were always there, like time itself. The rest of the first movement unfolds colorfully.

The propulsive outer sections of the Scherzo are given a good push, but Zinman overlooks possibilities for endearing charm in the middle section, as if he were reluctant to reveal anything that might be mistaken for sentiment. This music can really glow when the tempo is allowed to bend, when the ends of melodic lines are given more room to relax and even linger for a few extra seconds. The orchestra, though, produces a lovely, chamber-music transparency here.

Zinman's approach to the eternally fascinating third movement, with its delicious taste of the grotesque, is winning. The klezmer touches are underplayed, the lyrical passages gently underlined. The finale generates plenty of energy as it moves along, with some gorgeous phrasing in the contrasting moments of tender yearning.

Extra track

The recording includes an extra track -- the Blumine movement that Mahler originally placed second in the symphony, but later discarded. This moonlit reverie passes by pleasantly, but, as in the Scherzo, Zinman misses the extra warmth and atmosphere that greater rhythmic elasticity can yield.

In the long, drama-rich Symphony No. 2, a bit more power or subtlety would be welcome here and there, but, on balance, the performance shines. And, as in No. 1, the orchestra does admirably poised, finely detailed work.

Zinman holds the sprawling first movement together and finds in the second an appealing balance between nostalgic reflection and portent. The Scherzo is given a good deal of bite and swirling momentum. Contralto Anna Larson does not have the prettiest of timbres, but she is eloquent in the haunting Urlicht movement.

The long finale makes its death-and-resurrection progression arrestingly under Zinman's taut guidance. In the soaring closing passage, the Swiss Chamber Choir makes a sterling effort, from its hushed entrance to deep-throated exultation. Soprano Juliane Banse sounds uncomfortable as the musical line rises, but, like Larson, sings with an expressive intensity.

Zinman shapes the concluding pages of the score with considerable force, but more spaciousness here would have created extra tension leading to the inevitable, ecstatic release.

Darkest truths

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Mahler's uplifting Resurrection is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, subtitled Babi Yar, the name of a ravine outside of Kiev, where one of the Nazi army's most horrific mass murders took place in 1941.

Scored for bass soloist, male choir and orchestra, and employing raw, incendiary poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the work delivers a scathing indictment not only of the atrocity, but also of the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in post-war Russia. Temirkanov, an authoritative and compelling advocate for Shostakovich, has an especially potent grasp of this symphony and its message.

The RCA recording, made 11 years ago but only now being released, captures the Russian conductor at his most inspired and inspiring. Without exaggerating or over-emphasizing anything, he gets to the heart of the matter to uncover the darkest truths.

He is aided in this exploration by the sturdy tone and touching, nuance-filled phrasing of bass Serge Aleksashkin; the responsive singing of two bass choirs from St. Petersburg; and, of course, the disciplined, passionate playing by the Philharmonic, which Temirkanov has led since 1988.

The record company has provided no texts with the CD, an indefensible omission, given the importance of Yevtushenko's searing words, but it is impossible to miss the chilling substance of this symphony. (If you don't have another recording of the piece with the texts included, you can find them online with a little surfing.)

Temirkanov extracts the anger and horror of the opening movement as vividly as he unleashes the sardonic slap of the one titled "Humor." The shadowy images of "In the Store" and "Fears" rise tellingly into focus, while the enigmatic finale, "Career," exerts a strong pull.

Upbeat on concertos

The upbeat and irrepressibly witty side of the composer bursts out on a disc of concertos recorded last year with powerhouse pianist Denis Matsuev joining Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, with its prominent solo trumpet and strings-only orchestra, is one of the most imaginative works in the keyboard repertoire. It receives a crackling good performance here.

Matsuev's technical mastery enables him to fly through jazzy, manic, irreverent passages with ease, but he doesn't settle for bravura alone. There is a lot of substance and style behind the sparkling pianism. And when, in the Lento movement, Matsuev gets a chance to wax poetic, the results are magical, especially with the strings practically purring as he sculpts his eloquent phrases.

Temirkanov has those strings making dynamic contributions throughout, sounding, in their own way, as virtuosic as the pianist and the poised, polished trumpet soloist, Igor Sharapov.

The recording also includes that tireless warhorse, Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1. Again, Matsuev demonstrates sizable technical skills. His is pretty much a straight-ahead interpretation, without a lot of personal touches, but the confident, precise pianism generates an exciting sweep.

Temirkanov again supports the soloist seamlessly. And, although the strings sound oddly thin here, the Philharmonic once more delivers the goods in vibrant, carefully articulated fashion.


Hear clips from the new recordings at / classical

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