JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts (Conductor: Mariss Jansons) - August 11, 2002

National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts

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Symphony more sound than substance

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is one of the standard repertoire’s most difficult, yet potentially rewarding works. Much has been made of its “program” of country life, but, as always, the true meaning of this remarkable essay is imbedded in the score. If only that could be seen as readily as the words.

Mariss Jansons’ reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony provided many moments of fine orchestral playing but lacked an overall sense of direction.

The opening “Allegro ma non troppo,” had a good pace, sturdy strings and particularly eloquent woodwinds, but fell for the common trap of too much self-indulgent affectation—witness the virtual collapse into the second subject and its overly tenutoed (new word!) first eighth of the theme.

Throughout the symphony there were many occasions where Beethoven’s staccato markings were either ignored or realized with different lengths even as the same phrases made their way though various sections of the orchestra. This “sound” indulgence robs the music of much of its contrast, giving the band too much of a uniform, homogeneous sound—the very antithesis of much of classical music with its penchant for balance. One has to go back to the early ‘60s with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to find a performance that puts the markings first and the sound booth second (the musical value in Karajan’s recordings deteriorated in direct proportion to “improvements” in sound capturing technology.)

In general, the PSO recording engineers deliver the goods with consistency, but I have noticed a particularly overly present pick up of the French horns, which tends to put the rest of the winds out of balance.

And so too with dynamics. Arguably, the climax of the first movement is the fortissimo, but its volume (and, hence, dramatic weight) remained unchanged from the long passage of just forte that preceded it. No point was made.

PSO principal clarinetist Michael Rusinek stole the show (as he would throughout this mini clarinet concerto) in the coda with his compelling combination of technique and sensitivity.

The “Andante molto mosso” made a convincing brook and pleasantly startled me with a pianissimo that brought a shiver. More, please. Yet just as things were coming along nicely, I noticed a couple of patches of channel dropouts that caused me to suspect a loose speaker wire, but the dénouement of this mystery would have to wait.

The printed score shows five distinct movements, yet the last three (“Allegro - Peasants’ merry-making,” “Allegro - Tempest and Storm,” “Allegretto - The Shepherd’s Hymn”) are performed uninterrupted so must be thought of as one.

Jansons failed to provide any hints that he had made those connections in his approach. Consequently, the result was largely disjointed. There was little merry making in the clarinet or strings with the frantic pace chosen for the “Scherzo.” To their credit, the players got through, but the atmosphere was quiet panic rather than uproarious fun and then—when the notated Presto arrived—there was no gas left in anyone’s tank.

The storm was loud and dynamic; the lower strings proved once more that their technical skills are first rate but it was those wonderful violas that so beautifully morphed the texture from angst to relief, but to no avail. Jansons couldn’t find the pulse relationship from one movement to the next so the transition that should be subtly seamless was merely, OK here’s the 6/8.

The key to the finale is to let it play, rather than make it so. Add to that the understanding that sotto voce is not a tempo change, then there could be a fine performance rather than one that just sounded good.

The Prokofiev Violin Concerto got off to a beautifully restrained start. Clearly Spivakov and Jansons were speaking the same language. But not for long. I counted 18 unexpected electronic “screeches” eerily echoing the musical lines and began to wonder if the fund drive had fallen short and WQED/WNED hadn’t enough electricity to record and broadcast the concert.

Fortunately all seemed well by the start of the fiendish second movement, which was performed with dazzle and aplomb although the balance between soloist and orchestra appeared to have altered significantly, and I was planning to offer some “advice” to the engineer.

But never mind. Gremlins were afoot. The tape had been replaced with a CD performance (same soloist; different orchestra). I was reminded of a few such occurrences on our beloved CBC where the air tape had not been previewed and comments never meant to be heard were unwittingly broadcast in full stereo…

Ah well, on to the next! JWR

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Conductor - Mariss Jansons
Clarinet - Michael Rusinek
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" - Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major (1916/17) - Sergei Prokofiev
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