Conductors in a scattershot era of recording

Posted: June 26, 2007

Time and again, European orchestral conductors roar into America's side doors, virtually unknown but fully matured and ready to assume major appointments.

Both the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently appointed new music directors - respectively Jaap van Zweden and Manfred Honeck - who came to them as anonymous as guest conductors can be, then inspired knockout reviews and high marks from the players. Going the opposite direction, the even-lesser-known Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin is replacing the superstar Valery Gergiev at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Names that once inspired skepticism on the Philadelphia Orchestra's Mann Center programs - Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko, for one - have handily graduated to the orchestra's Center City season. Thursday night's unknown commodity is French conductor Ludovic Morlot, whose main U.S. credit is assistant conductor to James Levine in Boston. There must be some reason why Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic are hiring him for their 2007 summer seasons. Why don't we already know what it is?

The decentralization of the recording industry means that a carefully calculated succession of the major-label CDs and DVDs - otherwise known as career oxygen - are awarded to very few. Among the few thusly anointed in recent years is the brilliant Gustavo Dudamel, 26, who enjoyed one such rollout from Deutsche Grammophon last year, prior to his Los Angeles Philharmonic appointment. Recordings continue to be made, but coherent electronic calling cards have been replaced by scattershot appearances in a variety of labels, big, small, and so local as to be almost invisible.

Once the omnipotent gods of the recording industry, conductors now must choose standard repertoire in marginal places or marginal repertoire in visible places that may not show off what they can do. Or opera - a great place to hide a conductor in plain sight. Though Honeck is capable of a fine Mahler Symphony No. 1 (heard on a BBC Music Magazine free CD from years back), you can't get a fix on him from the Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival. With a starry cast and high-velocity production, the conductor facilitates rather than leads - a laudable task with opera on this level but not a rewarding one.

No conductor is lost amid stagecraft in big-orchestra operas such as Wagner and Strauss. But conductor Hartmut Haenchen, known in Holland but not here, is hard to appreciate as a major Wagner talent - alert to the opera's many strokes of characterization, and full of imaginative ways to project them - amid the vocal distress heard on a newly released live recording of Wagner's Die Walkure from the Netherlands Opera (Etcetera). Principal singers sound frazzled as early as Act I; worse, the recording's credibility is likely to be blighted by an Act III staging that scrambles voice-orchestra balances, leaving singers off-mike in significant moments.

The frightening truth is that the recording industry is no longer in the hands of experts. Though recording execs of the 1980s and '90s made some crazy judgments, none of them would have let something like this hit the market. Given the difficulties of marketing classical CDs in this post-Tower Records era, you'd think concerned parties would ponder more carefully what they're releasing.

And some do. Nézet-Séguin's recordings on the ATMA label with the off-the-beaten-path Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal have enterprising programs pairing Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2 with Nino Rota's film scores, and a recent outing with the Bruckner Symphony No. 7 that makes this mountainous music seem as intimate as a string quartet and as personal as overheard prayers.

Zweden is another who has yet to reveal blind spots. This violinist-turned-conductor (he was concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam at age 19) led the Hague Residentie Orkest in an SACD Beethoven symphony cycle three years ago, revealing all sorts of hidden relationships in the music's inner workings. But even in Europe, it's not easy to find. His Brahms symphonies with Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland - well worth hearing with their counterpoint of rhythmic acuity and particularly soaring melodic lines - are buried deep in the Brilliant Classics' 25-disc The Great Symphonies box set.

However, the increasingly discussed Marcus Bosch seems not always to know what's best for him and his growing discography with the Aachen Symphony Orchestra (where Herbert von Karajan and Wolfgang Sawallisch got their starts). He has an inspired if conventional Bruckner Seventh on the Coviello Classics label, but also a pair of Brahms symphonies (Nos. 1 and 4) that hurry around with little to say. That's increasingly common: Conductors eager to make their mark record a major symphony, with startling insights in one movement, incoherent ones the next.

That's the case with the increasingly celebrated BBC Philharmonic principal conductor Gianandrea Noseda in the BBC Music Magazine free CDs, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. But his growing Chandos-label discography, all lesser-known repertoire, is a completely different story. In Prokofiev's The Stone Flower and a disc of equally seldom-heard orchestra works by Respighi (including Rossiniana), Noseda's instincts are fired up and confident, finding the weight and shape of a phrase where the answer is far from obvious. Lovely discs, these, and they fill a gap that needed it.

It's here that you see how much healthier everybody might be with conductors off their major-label pedestals. What a notion: conductors who exist only to serve. Maybe even their huge salaries might come down.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@ Read his recent work at


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