Prom 54 – Mariss, Mendelssohn & Mahler

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.1 in D

Gil Shaham (violin)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After a breathtaking Tchaikovsky Fourth the previous evening, expectations were running high. The biggest block-busting orchestral weekend of the Proms this season (the Berlin Phil follow the Pittsburghers). On its own terms, this was a great concert, certainly a fitting end to the international pairing of Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony.(He doesn’t actually step down as Music Director until next summer; this is the last tour with the orchestra, and this second Prom was the last concert of that European tour.) If it didn’t quite go as far as the Tchaikovsky the night before, that is not to say that it was anything less than brilliantly played and unfailingly musical.

It started well. American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham may not have the cachet with audiences as other violinists, such as Vengerov, but he outshines them all in not only an engaging platform personality but also in his beauty of tone and technical facility. Amazingly, this was only his third visit to the Proms. In 1994 he played in the 1900 reconstruction concert as part of the centenary season – one of the few violinists available that actually knew the Wieniawski violin concerto played then. He returned with the Korngold concerto in 1997 (Bournemouth Symphony and Kreizberg); this time he brought one of the “war-horse” concertos. With Jansons as accompanist, there was nothing lumbering about this performance; it came across as fresh as the day it was written, with Shaham – bottom lip trembling in concentration – ever the equal to both Mendelssohn’s soaring melodic invention and technical difficulties.

I suspect this is the most persuasive solo violin performance in the Proms thus far. It seems incredible that Shaham is not regular participant in the Proms. He’s due back in London, at the Royal Festival Hall, on 3 & 6 March next year with the Philharmonia and David Zinman, for the Elgar and Barber concertos.

Mahler One begun with octave As that were wonderfully secure, revealing dawn and awakening nature. The sight of all nine horns standing at the end for the final peroration – lined up below the timpani – had the striking visual effect that Mahler obviously intended and Jansons responded carefully to various nuances in the score.Perhaps though the rendition was not earthy enough. Certainly in the slow movement the music was too beautiful. Jeffrey Turner, principal double bass, made his ’Brüder Martin’ solo sound too lyrical. The main reason Mahler chose this unlikely instrument was that it wouldn’t sound correct. Also the Klezmer band interruptions were far too urbane.They needed more contrasting attack.

Strange to criticise for being ’too musical,’ but it was enough to slightly disappoint. The effect of the slight Haydn encore (from Haydn’s String Quartet Op.3/5, now believed to be by Roman Hofstetter – Ed.) – done with grace and panache, sweet violins accompanied by pizzicato lower strings – was completely undone by the entrance of Herr Bombast Wagner, the Prelude to Act Three of Lohengrin. Wagner twice in four days is just far too much (readers will have noted my adverse reaction to Tannhäuser’s appearance at the beginning of Prom 50). The audience may have gone wild, but compared to the mercurial soundworld of Mendelssohn and the instrumental dexterity of Mahler, Wagner is all-too-much a retrograde step into mediocrity.

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