Pittsburgh SO/Jansons – 13 April

Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Symphony No.10 in E minor

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 13 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Pittsburgh Symphony produces exciting sounds. The strings can trip elegant measures yet slash a vicious ’whiplash’ when required. Flautists played with fine attention to phrasing and a cor anglais solo was arresting in its tonal colour and commanding sensitivity. The timpanist’s magisterial noise penetrated the Barbican acoustic like thunderbolts. The brass deafened all opposition.

This is a very American orchestra – musicians especially suited to projecting extrovert, brash sounds of the noonday sun. Its house-style knows the ’big band’ sounds of Duke Ellington – and I mean no disrespect. I missed mellowness. The strings often sounded brittle and meagre, the flutes harsh, the brass bullying. This was the sonic world of the CD, with sounds precise, articulate and bright, but dissociated – lacking the harmonious bloom and aurally gentler ensemble found on the best LPs.

Mariss Jansons suits the North American taste for a well-drilled orchestra under a European disciplinarian, c.f. Fritz Reiner in Chicago. He treats scores with scrupulous, literal interpretation. Too often his climaxes put me in mind of the famous passage in Haydn’s ’Surprise’ symphony. This was music-making by numbers. The audience was euphoric, though.

The Bartók fugue began atmospherically. Separated strings played to each other softly, mysteriously and diaphanously. Suddenly, the sound became brown slurry when all the strings played in mid-sonic range. I first blamed the acoustics: yet very recently, here, Boulez articulated the strands quite clearly. In both the second and fourth movements, Jansons picked up on energy and abrasiveness – but seemed incurious about coherent rhythmic drive. The ’Adagio’ opened arrestingly – linear, uncomplicated and spare. I savoured the interplay of percussion, timpani and strings filtering into a breath-held space. Later, the timpanist thudded through this rarefied world as though he was Fafner on the rampage.

Subtleties in Symphony 10’s first movement escaped the performance. Changes of tempo? Yes. Irony? No. Pain behind an apparent light-heart? No. The movement was lengthy, skittish and inconsequential. The dark, lean energies of the second movement battered the nape of my neck relentlessly – just as they should. The last movement was blazing and unforgettable. Jansons’s literalness hit the jackpot. If you ever doubted what DSCH (the composer’s musical motto) sounds like, this was the performance to hear. The composer-mouse came round the side of the grandfather clock, blinking – and turned briefly into a big cat.

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