Classical Review: Sound and fury, then a warm glow

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The Independent Culture

Two dates with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra left a warm friendly glow, after they had hit the eardrums like a night of drum-and-bass. Even in a Proms year of massive sounds, they were big. They came complete with classic all-American brass, the kind whose restrained moments sound like other orchestras' fortissimos, and the world's most vigorous timpanist.If they play like this in smaller halls, it's a wonder that the health officers don't put hearing protectors on their colleagues.

Could the strings match them for weight? In Beethoven's Leonore No 3 overture on Wednesday, the struggle was unequal, but Mariss Jansons' steady, broad-brush conducting left space for confident woodwind solos, including a particularly vital bassoon.

Richard Strauss was another matter. Early recordings of his outsize tone-poem Ein Heldenleben, and reports of his conducting, show that it responds to a lean and athletic style. Yet it might have been made for orchestras like this one: the strings can sing expansively, the sections blend, the climaxes can be as loud as you like.

It's an easy piece to listen to, but a strange one to understand. On one level pompous and schematic, on another it seems to parody the postures of heroism and the cliches of symphonic form. Jansons did a brilliant job clarifying the numerous strands of its flat-out battle episode, which not only created high physical excitement but exposed this pseudo-development as mostly musical nonsense. But as the work gradually resolves into serenity it shows Strauss at his most perceptive; the orchestra handled these lingering, sensuous paragraphs superbly.

An expertly judged accompaniment had featured in Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, as late-substitute soloist Jane Irwin sang what sounded like the performance of a lifetime. Given a voice that touches on genuine contralto quality and extends to strong high notes, Irwin has developed a capacity for conveying shades of feeling through tone colour without losing an eager directness of phrasing. She took fine control over vibrato and dynamics, and her low, fading, almost breathless final notes were truly a thing of wonder.

Tuesday's programme was less satisfying, because the broad brush didn't create the big picture. The opening of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony seemed too slow to sustain its tension, the short scherzo had a climax noisy enough for Heldenleben. Yevgeny Mravinsky, Jansons' teacher, used to pack the finale with comedy and cruelty like an old Russian circus, but here it was dead straight, at least until the thunderously menacing end.

Later, Berlioz's thunder effect in the Symphonie fantastique was extravagantly done with offstage drums, part of a slow movement that was the performance's highlight, intense, romantic and serious. The symphony's beginning was bright and alert, but most of the quick music turned ponderous. But you certainly could not say that about the orchestra's encores because it does does a good line in delivering massively scored light pieces with gigantic flair, from the theatricality of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Adagio to over-the-top collages of sound and fury from Strauss's Rosenkavalier and Massenet's Le Cid.

Tuesday's and Wednesday's Proms will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm on 3 and 6 Sept respectively