Alsop brings BSO back to recording

The Baltimore Sun

Talk about momentum. Things couldn't move much faster, or more positively, at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where Marin Alsop is a few short weeks away from the history-making inauguration of her tenure as music director -- the first woman at the helm of a major American orchestra.

Her interim term last season was eventful enough, what with such developments as the orchestra's first iTunes download (a chart-topper, at that). This season, Alsop and the BSO will make their satellite debut on XM Radio -- the opening program this month will be broadcast live, and there will be a regular Alsop/BSO presence on that channel thereafter.

On Tuesday, Sony Classical will release the orchestra's first commercial recording in eight years, a powerhouse performance of John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto, splendidly recorded live at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall last June.

At the very least, the perfectly timed arrival of the Corigliano disc adds to the sense of occasion as the BSO enters full-swing into its collaboration with Alsop.

Other concrete signs of productivity are in the pipeline. Alsop and the BSO have already begun recording Dvorak symphonies for another record label, Naxos, and the fruits of those sessions will begin arriving next year.

The fact that the BSO will now be back on the record shelves -- even if there are few old-fashioned record stores left that actually stock classical items -- complements the orchestra's current upbeat condition. And CDs do get noticed, often in influential places. They still have marketing value, along with artistic purpose. This new Sony product should generate a useful buzz.

(For one reason or another, no commercial recordings were made during Yuri Temirkanov's tenure with the BSO, 2000-2006. The orchestra's most recent commercial CD was made with Temirkanov's predecessor, David Zinman, in 1999 for the Telarc label.)

Of course, the Sony release is, strictly speaking, a vehicle for starry soloist Joshua Bell, he of the perennially boyish looks and unfailingly impressive talent. The violinist's picture alone graces the cover, and his surname gets the biggest type. The BSO is heard only on the concerto; the disc is filled out with a snappy account of Corigliano's jazzy, early-1960s Sonata for Violin and Piano (Jeremy Denk is Bell's excellent partner in that piece).

Bell certainly merits the attention. His playing is never less than colorful, virtuosic and compelling. He gives his all to the concerto, a work that has its roots in Corigliano's 1999 Academy Award-winning film score for Francois Girard's The Red Violin.

The composer first wrote a stand-alone movement for violin and orchestra that explored all sorts of melodic and emotional possibilities in the principal theme from that film score. Three more movements eventually followed to create a substantial addition to the concerto repertoire.

Corigliano sometimes seems to be padding the score, piling on episodes of agitated drama and layers of rich orchestration (and occasionally recalling effects from his Symphony No. 1). The thematic material doesn't always bear the weight of all that development. Still, there is never any mistaking the masterful craftsmanship. Fabulous sounds emerge at every turn.

Even those who aren't ultimately won over by the concerto are likely to be impressed by the solidity and sizzle of the performance, which finds Alsop in tight control, and the orchestra operating as a fully equal partner to the dynamic Bell.

The opening Chaconne movement (a form of extended variations over a repeated harmonic series) offers a moody, highly atmospheric experience, punctuated by some percussive outbursts from the ensemble that have a tingling impact and provide a nice reminder of just how good the acoustics are in the 25-year-old Meyerhoff.

There is much to enjoy in the brief scherzo, with its wispy waltzes and sounds of things that slither, buzz and go bump in the night (the woodwinds do some especially deft work here). The third movement finds Bell sculpting ethereal melodic lines over string chords that have a Vaughan Williams-like lushness; the BSO players sound as gorgeous here as the soloist.

The finale yields startling technical feats from Bell, some of them almost impossibly delicate, others terrifically aggressive. Alsop keeps the orchestral side of things just as vivid and secure, with lots of snap from the brass and percussion.

Throughout, the recording has an ear-grabbing immediacy. And the audience makes itself felt only at the concerto's end, with hearty applause.

Although the disc certainly provides a shining vehicle for Bell, it also serves as a very effective calling card for the new team of Alsop and the BSO.

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