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S & H Prom Review

PROM 53: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Mariss Jansons (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 29th August, 2003 (AR)

This was the first of two concerts marking Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons’ farewell European tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, having been their Musical Director since 1997.

The official programme contained a mere 75 minutes of music (and it was not only a short concert but also a very conservative one). With this great American orchestra one would have expected, or at least hoped, for some American composers to be represented: Elliott Carter, William Schuman, Charles Ives, etc. The prospect of yet another Beethoven symphony was hardly inspiring, especially since Jansons has not hitherto been particularly associated with that composer’s music.

In the event, his radical and rugged interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony no.2 in D major was quite simply revelatory. The Allegro was athletic and agile with Jansons securing taut, dance-like whirling rhythms and enticing some gutsy string playing and he also observed the first-movement repeat. Under Jansons the music ignited with burning passion and the concluding passages were exhilarating and joyous. He shifted mood in the Larghetto with expansive but sharp-edged phrasing, combining a graceful lilt with a sinewy toughness, the strings now taking on a dark and melancholic tone. With the Scherzo the conductor sustained a laid-back pace, oscillating between very subdued string passages and sudden eruptions from the orchestra, which in turn alternated between meticulously judged piano and fortissimo. Here Jansons created a sense of nervous tension through his extremely wide, but never distorted, dynamic range.

The final movement was crisp, agile and muscular with Jansons again conducting with swagger. Throughout there was something refreshingly new about his interpretation: it was as if we had never really heard this symphony before - and that is surely the hallmark of great conducting.

By contrast, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.4 in F minor was for the most part somewhat disappointing. While the opening brass fanfares of the first movement had a razor-sharp edge to them there was something rather clinical and streamlined about this highly polished playing, which had none of the essential emotional tension or drama: unusual, almost impossible, with this score one might think. What let this movement down was the unfocused and soft-edged playing of the timpanist. In a recent performance of this symphony with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic at the RFH, the timpanist’s use of hard sticks - and also being placed, unusually, almost in the centre of the orchestra – gave the timpani far more impact. This potentially explosive music never really ignited, with Jansons keeping too tight a rein on proceedings.

Things improved in the Andantino with Jansons’ graceful phrasing producing a highly expressive and deep, warm string tone, complemented nicely by a tough, grainy sound from the horns. Particularly noteworthy was the playing of the exquisite oboe solos by Cynthia KoldeoDeAlmeida.

The most successful movement by far was the Scherzo with Jansons taking it slightly slower and with much more weight than we are accustomed to. The dancing pizzicato of the strings was measured and concentrated, played with a seductive laid-back lilt. The Finale was an anti climax and never caught fire, with mannered conducting and very weak bass-drum and timpani playing. Tchaikovsky knew the sounds he wanted, and put due emphasis on the timpani in this movement. All in all, this was at best a streamlined, slick account rather than a dramatic and risk-taking performance.

By way of an encore we were treated to two contrasting bonnes-bouches - the Rose Adagio from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and a sparkling performance of the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.

For those wishing to hear it, BBC Radio 3 will re-broadcast this Prom on Monday 1st September at 2.00 pm.

Alex Russell






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