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
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