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S & H Concert Review

Bartók, Shostakovich Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons. Barbican Hall, April 13th, 2003 (CC)

Nobody seemed to mind that this programme was short measure: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony hardly added up to a full evening, but that did not stop people coming. The house was all but sold out, as far as I could see. However, doubts that presented themselves when the same orchestra played at the Royal Festival Hall in 2000 returned afresh.

It was the Andante tranquillo first movement of the Bartók that effectively scuppered Janson’s account. A creeping literalism jarred in this mysterious, disembodied music so that the climax missed its mark. This somehow incomplete feeling cast a shadow over the remaining three movements, each of which seemed, strangely, to get better than the last: lack of adequate warm-up, perhaps?

A welcome element of wit crept in to the second movement, which was otherwise noteworthy for its cutting-edge timpani playing and a real incisive edge from the strings. However, only in the ‘Night Music’ Adagio did Bartók’s true spirit peek out from behind its curtain: just as well, really, as this movement represents the emotional heart of the piece. An adequate amount of emotional release brought Janson’s account to a close leaving in its wake a curiously uncomfortable, insubstantial and incomplete feeling in this listener.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is the subject of much debate as regards its musical ciphers. The whole piece is full of mysteries – as is its opening. Or it should be, but here it was remarkably perfunctory, despite some wonderfully liquid clarinet playing (towards the end of the movement, the two clarinets appeared to be super-glued together, so precise was their ensemble!). Unfortunately, climaxes failed to make the shattering experience they should in a reading that was marked by Janson’s predominantly short sighted conception. If the pyrotechnics of the Allegro suited this orchestra to a tee (it was undeniably exciting, but perhaps for the wrong reasons: shallow virtuosity is no substitute for true understanding of this composer’s world), the orchestra seemed unwilling to underline the vulgarities of the third.

A pity, too, that the big statements of the DSCH motif of the finale seemed bombastic. The Tenth can be a weighty musical statement that leaves the listener exhausted (Rostropovich, for example, knows this). Here, it merely seemed misrepresented.

Colin Clarke



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