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
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
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