MUSIC / Sonic machismo: Chicago SO, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass get louder each time they come to London. The onslaught from the trombones in the closing hymn of the Tannhauser overture was almost as much as the Festival Hall acoustic could bear. But, judging from the wild cheering and whistling, this kind of sonic machismo is as popular with classical concert-goers as it is with heavy-metal fans.

The question is, what does it do to the orchestral sound as a whole? Granted, even the most beautifully balanced string playing can sound desiccated in the Festival Hall, but the sound of the Chicago violins pushing to produce a comparably big tone in parts of Brahms' Second Symphony was not pleasant, and in the Tannhauser apotheosis their cascading accompanying figures were virtually inaudible from the centre of the stalls. If big-band Mahlerian thrills are what you go for in the Brahms, then this might well have been an orgiastic delight. But those who remember that Brahms was also a master of the chamber style, and who look for echoes of it in this symphony, would have found it aggressive, hectoring, and lacking in subtlety.

However much one wants an orchestral tutti to be vibrant and incisive, another attribute of a great orchestra is a magical pianissimo - the kind of intense hush that rivets the attention even in the far recesses of a large concert hall. The Chicago did play quietly, occasionally, but when it did, both tone and phrasing were bland. As conductor, Daniel Barenboim must bear some of the responsibility here. He has a strong feeling for the longer phrase, and for the hidden line that holds a work together - no question, this Brahms Second was a strongly unified conception. But details of expression and colour often went for very little.

The light touch, and the sense of subversive humour, eluded Barenboim in Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. Again, the final feeling was of a work well shaped and thought through, a performance that didn't pull any punches when it came to climactic power, but not one to make you warm to Strauss's anarchic prankster hero.

So how well was Elliott Carter's new Partita served? Hard to say: even with a score, I found that flashes of enlightenment came only intermittently. Carter's pointillism is by no means always as fragmentary as it looks on paper; in a good performance, larger connections emerge. This happened fitfully in this UK premiere: on the whole, it confirmed the nightmare image many people have of modern music - all plinks and plonks and frenzied scrubbing. Partita needs a conductor of Oliver Knussen's analytical penetration to make it reveal its secrets. Still, it remains striking that, while young composers strain for accessibility or easy shocks, this youthful 85- year-old can still write music that really challenges.