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Strauss, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Bernstein: Barry Douglas (piano) / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29.08.06 (GPu)



Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

Shostakovich: Symphony No 9

Gershwin (arr. Grofé): Rhapsody in Blue

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story 

 

Making one’s way to St. David’s Hall to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on an evening when the Rolling Stones were playing at the Millennium Stadium just down the road involved making one’s way against the tide – as much metaphorically as literally.

 

The concerts of this European tour by the Pittsburgh Symphony (their fifteenth such tour) were scheduled to be conducted by their Artistic Director Sir Andrew Davis but ill-health sadly prevented this, and Leonard Slatkin – another figure familiar to British audiences – stepped in to replace him. This concert in Cardiff followed two in Dublin and was itself to be succeeded by an appearance at the Proms and four concerts in Germany.

 

Their programme divided symmetrically: a first half made up of two (very) European works, a second half made up of two (quintessentially) American works. There was also a degree of symmetry as regards the relative success of the two halves of the concert.

 

The introduction to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel , often thought of as a kind of musical ‘once upon a time’ , was played evocatively and enticingly but what followed was only intermittently successful. This Till was a good deal less sardonic, less quick-witted, than many that one has encountered in the past. On the whole the more dramatic passages fared much better than the playful ones, for all the obvious technical brilliance of all sections of the orchestra and the solo violin work of Concertmaster Andrés Cárdenas. Tempo seemed a little sluggish at times, and rhythms sometimes lacked real vivacity.

 

The performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth which followed was altogether more striking. Where this symphony is concerned it is easy to be sidetracked into paying more attention to what it isn’t – not an obviously heroic tribute to the heroism of the Soveit people at the end of the Second World War, not a Hymn of praise for Stalin’s great leadership – than to what it is. Slatkin’s was an uncomplicated reading and one had no sense that he saw the symphony as the kind of “open gesture of dissent” which Ian MacDonald finds it to be. But there was enough recognition of the work’s ambiguities for this performance not to seem a mere simplification. The opening allegro, taken pretty fast, was sleekly neoclassical - wit, energy and charm in perfect balance. The second movement (moderato) was taken very slowly, so much so that there were moments when it seemed to be on the verge of coming to a standstill; but the beautiful sound of the Pittsburgh’s woodwinds and low strings sustained the lines even at such a slow tempo. This was a persuasively beautiful account of the movement, in which there was darkness present – and a certain sense of bitter mockery - right from the limpid clarinet statement of the first theme (movingly played). The raucous brass of the presto were simultaneously precise and emotionally ambiguous, before a ravishing account of the serious beauty of the short largo which makes up the fourth movement, especially in the eloquent work of bassoonist Nancy Goeres. In the final allegretto there was plenty of ghostly menace and demonic drive to ensure that the jauntiness of the ending felt uncomfortably forced but (characteristically of Shostakovich) not in any simple or unqualified way. Charles Lamb argued that Shakespeare’s King Lear was too complex and powerful a play ever to be satisfactorily staged; though not for quite the same reasons, it is probably safe to say that most of Shostakovich’s symphonies are similarly always likely to elude successful interpretation in any one performance. Certainly it is rare to hear them and feel entirely ‘satisfied’. But this performance came pretty close; it wasn’t the most searching interpretation the symphony has ever had, but unlike many readings it didn’t lose itself in its own self-awareness or its vision of Shostakovich’s irony; both orchestra and conductor brought subtlety (but not over-subtlety) and directness (but not excessive directness) to this teasingly ambiguous work and the results were impressive.

 

After the interval, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a rather schizophrenic affair. Orchestra and conductor were thoroughly comfortable in the idiom and played with energy and a well-judged willingness to enter into the splendid and enjoyable vulgarity of Gershwin’s (and Grofé’s) clever confection. Unfortunately Barry Douglas was much less at home. Gershwin’s piano style didn’t appear to come at all naturally to him; his first entrance was tentative and throughout his phrasing lacked real conviction in the jazzier / bluesier writing, where his playing was bookish and ‘learned’ rather than instinctive. Douglas is a fine pianist; I have heard him play Beethoven and Liszt with commanding brilliance. But, as yet at least, he hasn’t got to the heart of material such as this.

 

Bernstein’s eight dances from West Side Story made a superb conclusion to the programme. Everything about the performance was utterly assured and utterly full of conviction. Every section of the orchestra made brilliant contributions – not least the percussionists – but this wasn’t simply an excuse for a demonstration of orchestral technique. There was passion and warmth in the playing, wit and poise (when required) in Slatkin’s reading – just as there was an appropriate abandon (more precisely an illusion of abandon) at other points. By turns there was awesome orchestral power and wonderful delicacy; there was a thoroughly musical response alike to the sugar and to the acid of Bernstein’s score. This was perhaps the most memorable performance of the evening – though the Shostakovich ran it close.

 

Alluding to the aforementioned gig by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Slatkin told the audience he had wanted to play Elgar’s transcription of ‘Honkey Tonk Woman’ as an encore, by had been unable to obtain the orchestral parts! He settled instead for Gershwin’s ‘Walking the Dog’ (from the film Shall We Dance), played with a perfectly judged lilting wit, rounding off an interesting – if not flawless – evening. And I was glad that I had made my way against the tide.

 

 

Glyn Pursglove

 

 


 

 

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)