Prom 36: Spanish (K)nights and American Days

Don Quixote – Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op.35
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Truls Mørk (cello)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although providing a fine evening at the Royal Albert Hall, given the day – the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley – the Proms missed a trick at this concert. Michael Daugherty has provided the ideal work – Dead Elvis for solo bassoon and ensemble. The bassoonist should be dressed as Elvis and – although it might have looked odd for the LSO’s Rachel Gough to take the part – it occurred to me that Mariss Jansons would probably make an extremely good Elvis look-alike, with his hair gelled appropriately…! As it was, we did get to the New World, some fifty years before Elvis was a mere twinkling in his parents’ eyes: in the form of Dvořák’s most famous work, heard at the Proms for the 85th time.

First, however, was Don Quixote. If Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk seemed rather diffident to start – a rather gangly and quiet-spoken knight – Paul Silverthorne’s viola-take on Sancho Panza came over in full-bodied life. So too did the orchestra, revelling in the many different characters evoked by Strauss; rarely have the baying sheep been so sinisterly portrayed, while the lower woodwind imitated the monks in their quasi-religious passages to perfection. Despite initial reservations about Mørk’s tone-projection (the cello is notoriously difficult to project in such a massive hall, and I did wonder if Mørk, Isserlis-like, favours gut strings), this settled to a very fine interpretation, the players responding to Jansons’s malleable and baton-less gestures. Intriguingly, the programme made little play with the Spanish connection – which I would have thought writ large in this of all seasons!

Belying the fact that five years ago the 59-year-old Jansons suffered a number of health setbacks, he conducted here with extraordinary vigour, and consequently drew from the LSO a freshly-minted ’New World’.We, perhaps, know this music too well (although I delight in finding every Western-film-score somehow copycatting Dvořák), and its symphonic credentials are diminished by that very familiarity (let alone Dvořák’s idiosyncratic use of symphonic form – it is his most unsymphonic symphony), but it also contains some of the most immediately approachable music ever written and – serendipitously – paved the way for the following night’s tribute to Richard Rodgers.

With the famous slow movement cor anglais solo, eloquently taken by Christine Pendrill, matched in all departments with playing of exquisite finesse and aplomb (Andrew Marriner’s clarinet pianissimo was truly remarkable), here was a performance to cherish. Perhaps, for some, Jansons’s moulding was too interventionist and he may have gone more for the moment rather than the architecture (Blomstedt and the Leipzigers last year were, admittedly, more architecturally sound), but I wouldn’t have missed this blissful music-making.

Jansons is back with the LSO for Mahler 6 in November (27 & 28) and brings the Vienna Philharmonic to the Royal Festival Hall (16 September) with Mendelssohn, Haydn and Stravinsky. And he’s due to return with his Pittsburghers in a future Proms season. We don’t see enough of him!

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 21 August, at 2 o’clock

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