This is the third installment of Marin Alsop’s new Brahms cycle. Why Naxos did not release this one and Symphony 2 in SACD is beyond me, as that feature would have added greatly to the desirability of the series in general, as it most definitely did to Symphony 1 (the only SA release thus far).
But releasing this only in regular stereo means that it must face far greater competition than it would had an audio edge be appended. Be that as it may, any new Brahms recording must face the greatness of the past along with the not inconsiderable achievements of the present. How does Alsop’s third fare?
Not badly, all things considered. Hers is splendidly played, the London Philharmonic espousing great depth, breadth, and richly-colored sound. When the full orchestra chimes in, especially the brass, the effect is quite splendid, and it lifts you off your seat. Sound-wise this is an excellent release, one that Naxos can be proud of (but SA next time, please).
My problems begin interpretatively. Alsop goes for a large, measured, almost hyper-extended view of this work that to me simply misses the point. The type of emotive presence that works so well in the second simply doesn’t apply to the third, a far more difficult work structurally, and much more intense in those places where intensity matters. The sluggish opening has neither the canonic lift that you need in those opening bars, nor the climatic “oomph” that you get when the full orchestra enters. Instead we have a rather lackadaisical opening with sluggish momentum that fails to jump-start the rest of the first movement. Too slow a tempo here is fatal, as the difficult 6/4 tempo cannot muster enough energy to keep the train going.
And this seems to be a problem throughout the piece. Bernstein, in his DGG recording, was even more hyper-extended than Alsop, but Bernstein invests so much energy in every bar that he is able to keep the boat afloat even though his is a generally failed reading. The greatest readings of this work—Walter (still the standard), Maazel (whose Cleveland recording is still the most beautiful), and Steinberg at Pittsburgh all keep the thrust going without letting the tempo sag. Walter and Maazel sound clean and spectacular still, with a clarity whose lack haunts Alsop, who seems content to stay awash in an almost Karajan-like soup much of the time.
There is room for this sort of interpretation, and some might even prefer it, but for me the essence of this symphony—my favorite of the canonical four—lies in these other recordings. If SACD had been offered, perhaps some of the problems not directly related to tempo may have disappeared, but even with it I cannot but believe that this reading, for all of its immaculate felicities, will remain just outside the preferred recordings of this seminal work.
— Steven Ritter