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S & H Prom Review

PROM 54: Mendelssohn, Mahler Gil Shaham (violin); Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons. RAH, Saturday, August 30th, 2003 (CC)


When I heard the Pittsburgh Orchestra under this conductor, Mariss Jansons at the Barbican in June 2000, my response was mixed. Many of my comments then apply now: high on technique, short on atmosphere might sum it up. Then, it was the Rite of Spring, that orchestral show-piece par excellence, which provided the orchestra with the chance to shine in all departments; here, Mahler’s First Symphony was the chosen vehicle. And it was for this, surely, that most of the capacity audience came.

Possibly unless one happens to be a violinist, that is. Gil Shaham has been a major player for some time now, but his visits to these shores appear to be rare. To hear him in the Mendelssohn was a real delight. In the event, it is true to say that this reviewer has never before heard a more convincing (and technically sure) account of the first two movements, on disc or in the concert hall. The opening was wonderfully rapt, Shaham spinning a sweet-toned melody over the orchestral support. He exuded confidence, yet played entirely within the scale of the piece. Chamber music was evoked on several occasions, and it is a tribute to Jansons’ accompaniment that there was a real rapport between soloist and orchestra. Only in the orchestral fortes did the orchestra sound too rounded, almost muted. The quality continued in the Andante: for once, this was a real Andante (no dawdling here), in which Shaham’s eloquent simplicity was entirely in order. His stopping and octaves were superb, and entirely in the service of the lyric impulse.

A shame, then, that the finale was a virtuoso showpiece and little more from start to finish. Mendelssohn is careful to put not one but two warnings in his tempo indication: Allegretto (i.e. not allegro) non troppo for the 14 bar ‘bridge’ to the Finale, and Allegro molte vivace for the final movement itself. The crux of the matter was that in the first two movements, one was aware of Mendelssohn as one listened; in the finale, one was aware of Shaham the virtuoso. A crucial difference which marred an otherwise noteworthy account of this evergreen concerto.

Mahler’s First Symphony is a perennial favourite. Approachable and full of youthful confidence, it gives every department of the orchestra a chance to shine. So it was that the loud parts were very loud, the fast passages fast and accurate, and time and time again one sat, mouth agape, at the biting brass playing (the horns in particular were superb).

But the very opening said it all. That evocation of natural stasis, punctuated by descending fourths and fanfares, completely lacked the mystery it so desperately needs to set up. No surprise, then, that the appearance of the melody from Mahler’s song, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ was hardly a blossoming. Throughout, Jansons demonstrated an enviable knowledge of Mahler’s scoring and the effects within the score, but there was something essentially Viennese always missing. So the second movement was a merely a reminder of Austrian Ländler, and far too low on fuel for any sense of parody to come through (a charming Trio did not make up for this). It was the third movement that emerged as the best. Jewish elements were foregrounded (even to the point of some remarkable vibrato from the first trumpet!), not to mention a faultless double-bass solo.

The finale brought forth no surprises. Orchestral colour was carefully projected, the horns stood for their final peroration, bringing an enthusiastic reception from the Prommers. But why were the very first bars not the tormented cri de coeur they should be? (Try Bernstein live on DG for a heart-stopping experience in this piece).

Mixed feelings, then. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s bread and butter seems to be the bright, showy, virtuoso side of the repertoire. Perhaps it is for the best that we did not get a later Mahler symphony, where interpretative problems really begin to kick in.

Colin Clarke

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