Dallas Symphony/Litton – 30 May

Symphony for Strings (Symphony No.5)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
The Firebird – 1945 Suite

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 30 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Not every American orchestra tours something home-produced. The bands of Washington DC and San Francisco do. The one from Pittsburgh does not – as past London appearances and this year’s Proms report, or we might by now have heard or be anticipating hearing Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, which Mariss Jansons premiered in May 2000. Another Rouse champion, Christoph Eschenbach, avoided anything native when the Houston Symphony travelled to London. When he next comes, this time with his Philadelphians, it’ll be Mahler’s First Symphony. That’s after Pittsburgh has played it at the Proms!

The good folk from Dallas do flag-fly. Not out of duty – American music is rich and distinctive. William Schuman (1910-1992) occupies a special place in this culture. Tributes to him are always fond remembrances – to man and musician. His concise yet big-hearted string symphony (1943) displays a rhythmic virtuosity that is breathtaking. Invigorating outer movements enclose a deeply felt threnody that aches with humanity and consolation. Schuman speaks directly to us. In performance the work needs precision and heart. Andrew Litton’s athletic and poignant Dallas strings did it proud. The Finale’s melodic curves and irrepressibility remind of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra. Both are masterpieces.

Should Sony SMK 63163 remain available, it contains Schuman’s Symphony for Strings plus his symphonies 3 (a classic) and 8 (absorbing). Leonard Bernstein conducts. Maybe we have a surge of interest in Schuman’s music – his Song of Orpheus is at the Proms on 23 July.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Dallas Symphony seemed otherwise to be playing it safe – the yawn factor of Rachmaninov’s third concerto and another Firebird. The latter is constantly in flight – London has had several complete performances recently and there are at least four more on the horizon. That’s before the various suites are considered. In opting for 1945, Litton chose the most pared-down of Stravinsky’s re-writes, tinkering that extended copyright and which distils the essence of the complete score if, certainly tonight, removing its atmosphere. The older composer disowning the extravagances of his youth (“tut tut, my boy!”). A cut-and-paste job. Wings clipped. However sound- colour- and timbre-conscious Litton was, however refined and pianissimo much of the playing, there was something curiously unsatisfying about hearing a string of numbers bereft of innate theatricality. Lucid orchestral work was often illuminating if, at times, self-consciously prepared.

Litton may get a buzz from taking applause, but he wanted too many curtain calls before dispensing the encores that we knew were coming. Gershwin’s Lullaby made another showcase for the strings, raptly done, while the Act One close of Copland’s The Tender Land stirred in peroration and satisfied in peaceful conclusion.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto suffers all sorts of indignities – not least misplaced Hollywood associations and soulless display. This performance endured an official photographer. Intrusive whirring from a camera is unacceptable. The SBC should ensure this is not repeated. Are a few publicity shots more important than creating the best conditions for listening?

Fortunately, Boris Berezovsky’s nonchalant virtuosity came as secondary. He was really under the skin of the music – its volatility and nerve ends. The real Rachmaninov was presented here – flesh and bones, head and heart. Litton was a fine and sympathetic accomplice – lean orchestral tissue founded on warm-sounding strings that revealed chamber music, something emphasised by Berezovsky’s discretion and dialogue with the players; characterful solos from bassoon, flute and horn, the latter with fruity vibrato, rather Russian, and attractively so. Without any indulgence, this performance avoided parading a succession of contrivances. The episodes were related, the journey was a soulful, emotional one, sometimes spectral, sometimes morose, always personal, pent-up passions spilling over instinctively with a sense of mortal presence and exorcising culmination. Just what the jaded palate needed.

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