Prom 53 – A Mingled Chime

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Friday night, an absolutely full house, and the Pittsburgh Symphony is a wonderful orchestra. Mariss Jansons is an excellent and much-loved conductor taking his leave of the PSO as Music Director. There’s great anticipation. Does this mean instant rapture? Not quite.

As a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony some time ago at the Barbican made clear, Beethoven is not really Jansons’s forte. He is an effective Beethoven conductor but not a natural one. By contrast, Tchaikovsky is definitely something that Jansons does very well: the rousing finale of the Fourth Symphony is sure-fire success. Whether it is the best piece to ’tour’ is a different matter. Although near technical perfection is an obvious plus in this music, Tchaikovsky also demands a level of emotional involvement which is perhaps more difficult to replicate night after night. On this occasion, although there was much superlative playing, the first movement failed to ignite fully.

Also, the orchestral layout did the sound few favours. The brass was ranged laterally across the platform well above the strings and, in turn, the percussion was placed above the brass, the timpani being immediately below Sir Henry Wood’s bust. The Pittsburgh has a gloriously warm string section that combines European warmth and transatlantic technical assurance; it also has some exceptional wind players, especially the sensitive first oboe. With this layout neither the strings nor the woodwind were heard to best advantage, being all too frequently obliterated by some raucous brass playing whilst the timpani registered less than normal.

The Beethoven was at its best in the glowingly rendered ’Larghetto’ and the headlong ’Allegro molto’ finale. Elsewhere the performance presented a curiously schizophrenic face to the world. This was traditional big-orchestra Beethoven with a full-ish string section (although only six double basses), offset by over-prominent horns and timpani (played with hard sticks). It was as if the strings were giving us the conventional performance (vibrato included) and brass and drums were imagining an ’authentic’ band-sound; meanwhile the poor (if excellent) woodwind were left without much of a look-in.Speeds were fleet and unexceptionable and the first-movement repeat was taken. There was little sense of the music’s rugged quality or bluff humour. The Eroica was, after all, only one year away; this sounded like a classical eighteenth-century symphony writ large.

The Tchaikovsky was on a different plane and had many good things, not least a quite exquisite slow movement graced by a sensationally good oboe and everything perfectly dovetailed. At the movement’s end we held our collective breath. In the first movement, despite much beautiful wind playing – especially from the clarinet and flute – proceedings were too dominated by horns and trombones. When the real moments of cataclysm arrived, too little had been held in reserve to clinch those triple forte markings.

The pizzicato third movement was excellently played, at exactly the right tempi, marred only by some slightly over-weighty trombones, hardly pp. The Finale was certainly ’con fuoco’ – and for some it was electrifying. However, there is a difference between energy (which undoubtedly coursed through the playing) and genuine elation (which did not); perhaps true elation, like an orgasm, is difficult to fake. A mingled chime of a concert.

For encores were the ’Rose Adagio’ from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, with a truly fabulous harp cadenza, and the ’Farandole’ from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne music.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Monday 1 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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