Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Symphony No.2 [Performed in the Critical Edition prepared for The Charles Ives Society by Jonathan Elkus]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Lang Lang (piano)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Pittsburgh Symphony should have been in the company of Sir Andrew Davis, the Orchestra’s Artistic Advisor. Illness (and surgery) forced Davis out of the first leg of the PSO’s European tour (Greece, Ireland, Wales, and the Proms) with Leonard Slatkin able to replace him for all the concerts with repertoire (including Bernstein, Brahms, Gershwin and Shostakovich) left as scheduled.

Charles Ives’s Second Symphony received its first performance in 1951 (by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, a premiere now preserved on CD – in a collection from the Philharmonic – and Bernstein recorded it twice more), nearly fifty years after its essential completion in 1902, though Ives (1874-1954) continued to ‘tinker’ with the score on and off for a good while thereafter. Indeed, the new edition prepared by Jonathan Elkus for The Charles Ives Society is said to correct over 1,000 errors.

It might well be the first symphony – and there have been few since – whose fabric is made up of quotations from disparate sources, such as American ‘traditional’ tunes, hymns, and the like, in addition to allusions to the European symphonic literature, especially Brahms, Wagner and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Moreover, each of Ives’s five movements (the first and last two played without a break) was originally intended for other contexts.

The wonder is that all this disparity actually makes for a cogent musical experience and, in the final analysis, it can safely be described as a ‘Romantic’ symphony, infused as it is with the spirit of the late nineteenth-century, albeit with some characteristic Ivesian peculiarities as part of its ingredients.

Leonard Slatkin’s reading was a strong one, pulling all the various elements together and making a convincing whole, aided and abetted by confident orchestral playing.

In the opening movement, Slatkin kept things moving along, noting the Andante marking, much to the benefit of the music. Slower passages here and in the third movement were expressively shaped without unnecessary lingering. There were eloquent woodwind solos (from the flute and especially the oboe) and solo strings – the cello in particular – made a fine contribution. In that Adagio third movement, the gently nostalgic spirit of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony was evoked; this being completed a mere four years before Ives began his Second Symphony in 1897. In the vigorous second movement Allegro, Ives’s exuberant spirit was ideally captured, and the boisterous finale had all the energy one could wish for.

I’ve always felt that the final pages of the symphony were written later than the remainder, or at least extensively revised, since the drawing together of themes is more confidently handled than certain other passages which proceed it in this and previous movements. And as for the final ‘raspberry’ from the full orchestra (an eleven-note chord), this must surely have been added after the composer had gained a certain notoriety for provocative musical ideas and gestures.

In any event, Slatkin and his players brought the symphony to a rousing conclusion (trombones standing) with terrific gusto.

I suspect Lang Lang’s current interpretation of Chopin’s First Concerto (actually chronologically the second to be composed) will polarise opinion. A virtuoso concerto was given a virtuoso rendition, with bold bravura passages given tremendous heft, but what impressed most were the delicate pianissimos, sometimes on the very verge of audibility and impeccably executed. But whether technical finesse (which is undeniable) was placed at the service of the music itself or served merely to demonstrate the pianist’s prowess is more debatable.

Of course, we do not know how Chopin played his own music, though there are reports of ladies swooning. Whilst there was no evidence of expiration on the part of members of this Proms audience, it was certainly captivated by Lang Lang’s playing and demeanour. There was good rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra, though even the sensitive Slatkin was unable to do a lot with some of the blatant brass writing in the outer movements. But the central ‘Romanze’ was either beautifully expressive or intolerably narcissistic depending on your point of view. Soloist and conductor were at one in some places where, arguably, rubato was taken to extremes.

As an encore, Lang Lang played the closing section of Liszt’s C sharp minor Hungarian Rhapsody (as arranged by Horowitz) with indubitable panache, revelling in his own virtuosity. The audience loved it and, indeed, joined in!

Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel was given a performance in which the various episodes – the lively as well as the tender – were strongly characterised with, once again, some outstanding solo playing. In fact, Strauss’s score was revealed as a real orchestral ‘showpiece’, and was non the worse for it, even if one sensed moments where the brass threatened to overwhelm everything else.

For encores, the strings played ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ from Walton’s music for Olivier’s film of “Henry V” with restrained expression. Then the full ensemble offered Elgar’s ‘The Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s The Wand of Youth (Suite No.2), which was delivered rumbustiously by this splendid orchestra, the musicians clearly enjoying working with Leonard Slatkin. He was then straight off to Nashville to prepare for the opening of a new concert hall, while the PSO travelled to Germany to continue its tour, as planned, with Hans Graf.

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