The first draft of David Zinman's "legacy" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been captured in the strange permanence of three compact discs. History used to have at least a little say in such matters, but now, only a year after leaving his 13-year post as music director of the BSO, he has left "The Zinman Legacy," a set of recordings of standard repertoire that seems to fly in the face of exactly what one might have expected his legacy to be.
The word "legacy" is the problem. It seems just a bit premature--perhaps a generation premature--to decide any conductor's long-term impact on an orchestra. And legacy is altogether too pompous a word to describe these performances, released by the orchestra from archival tapes of live performances. They are not legacy performances but high-quality snapshots of a very good orchestra playing at a very high level. They are distinguished by a lack of pretension and ponderousness. They are listenable and enjoyable, but certainly not grand bequests to the future.
The performances, which, according to the orchestra, were selected personally by Zinman (and not by the marketing department), date from 1991-97. Motivated, perhaps, by a desire to balance his remarkably successful commercial recordings of contemporary repertoire (his recording of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 brushed the 1 million sales mark) with more traditional concert fare, Zinman has devoted these discs entirely to the horsiest of the war horses: symphonies by Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Prokofiev. Alas, no Elgar, for which he was critically acclaimed, nor any American music, of which he was a stalwart booster.
Zinman is by no means a newcomer to standard repertoire on recordings--his discography now includes a complete Beethoven symphony cycle recorded with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra--but it's disconcerting to see him define his legacy entirely in terms of mainstream classics.
For a collection that will be bought primarily by the orchestra's local fans (it can be purchased at Baltimore bookstores, including the Bibelot chain and An die Musik, and through the symphony), this may be a wise marketing choice. Given the near impossibility of recording standard repertoire with major-label record companies, BSO fans will have little other opportunity to relive a typical Zinman night in Meyerhoff Hall. But the conservatism of the repertoire and the sensible orthodoxy of Zinman's interpretive decisions give these recordings an archival feel, as if they were meant to be reliable references to the great classics led by a conductor determined to leave an objective account.
Without ignoring stylistic differences in music by Mozart and, say, Mahler, Zinman nevertheless produces a continuity between them. Each symphony lives in its own proper universe, but all five share generally brisk tempos, no-nonsense transitions, a common orderliness and pithy condensation.
Zinman's approach to the classics in Baltimore may well be an obverse reflection of his other, and perhaps more vital, career as a promoter of new composition. More than most conductors of his generation and stature, Zinman knew how to balance the obligation to the past with a genuine interest in the present. But while his discovery of new composers and their work had an element of volatility and surprise, this recording of standard repertoire reveals those same elements strictly contained within responsible bounds. He approaches old music with a dutiful curator's commitment to keeping the dust off the showpieces without over-interpreting them. Good light, clean walls, basic labels.
In that, Zinman may be a man of his times. Smart conductors know that the classics need to be "maintained" and there's little incentive, besides the music itself, to do much more with them. Record companies are not handing out offers to new Furtwanglers and Stokowskis to commit magisterial insights or fascinating eccentricities to the catalogue. And for better and worse, conductors like Zinman have no need to compete with the lions of the past and pretend to be what they are not.
The question raised by these discs, and others that have been self-released by symphony orchestras across the country, is whether this new curatorial style, which focuses on textual fidelity and clean performance, is becoming pervasive. And if it is, should we regret it? Sameness breeds contempt, but perhaps we should be grateful for what we have: impressive recordings, like this one, that have only limited local appeal.
And there is much to admire. Zinman built a fine orchestra, which plays Mozart with a rare mix of tonal fortitude and classical refinement. Stylistically, Zinman's performance of the Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter") is aimed toward Beethoven and the 19th century. And while there are some occasional string deficiencies, a fine line is successfully negotiated between fullness of sound and direct emotionality, and the more decorous sound of earlier Mozart.
Prokofiev's homage to Mozart, Haydn and Co., the Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), is resolutely Haydnesque, ironic without sneering, unfolding in brief bursts of musical whimsy. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 is impressively shaded and surprisingly atmospheric, with themes emerging out of the mist and developing organically into passionate outbursts. This isn't private misery over a brandy snifter but epic misery with the whole world chiming in. Yet, like Mahler's Symphony No. 6, in which Zinman concentrates on pure plot and eventfulness with no wearying asides, the Tchaikovsky is admirably free of morbidity and bombast.
For live performances, these are well captured on disc. Audience noise is audible, but in many ways it serves to augment the effect of the music--not only the lusty applause, but also the palpable silences following a dramatic fortissimo. One can hear the audience snap to silent attention when the music climaxes or raises breathless anticipation. A quiet audience is a happy audience.
Still, that word "legacy" nags. Like it or not, Zinman the recording artist will probably be remembered for that pesky 1992 recording of the Gorecki symphony, recorded not with the Baltimore Symphony but with the London Sinfonietta. It shocked the music world, created a passing interest in the Polish minimalist, and contributed to the enduring folly of a recording industry perpetually chasing after singing monks and nuns and all manner of dolorous Eastern European mysticism. Inadvertently, Zinman's Gorecki contributed to the same market dynamics that make it difficult for orchestras to get recordings like this one--of standard repertoire--into the bins at major record stores. A strange irony.
If history is kind, however, Zinman will get more credit for his really substantial accomplishments in Baltimore: rethinking the concert format, his popular "Casual Concerts" radio series and his intelligent championing of young American composers. That legacy may well dwarf "The Zinman Legacy" in the long run.