A walk on the safe side: Robert Cowan contrasts Proms appearances by the Dresden Staatskapelle and Pittsburgh SO

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The Independent Culture
When the Dresden Staatskapelle strings announced Beethoven's Pastoral at Wednesday night's Prom, my initial reaction was one of mild relief. 'Awakening of happy feelings at not hearing period violins,' I thought, still reeling from John Eliot Gardiner's Fifth of a fortnight ago. Even the look of this orchestra, with its predominance of senior males, suggests some sturdy pre-war 'tradition' - an impression compounded by the nature of Davis's interpretation.

Sir Colin's Pastoral was very much a garden suburb affair, all clipped hedges and mowed lawns, with neither bracken nor litter in sight. The first movement moved swiftly, with Davis visibly underlining the question-and- answer elements of the proto- minimalist development section and much effectively dovetailed phrasing.

The second movement's brook flowed easily, although wind tuning was occasionally suspect and the parting cuckoo-calls seemed unusually reticent. And while the peasants were fairly constrained (on a coach trip to Kenwood, perhaps), the timpanist compensated with a volley of aural thunder: it was a thrilling interlude in what otherwise proved to be a fairly temperate, though comfortably executed, traversal.

The Brahms First Symphony was similarly loving and well-groomed, with a breadth that recalled the orchestra's days of yore under Kurt Sanderling, but with little suggestion of Sanderling's architectural vision. The opening was rather prosaic and much of the ensuing Allegro, although fairly assertive, lacked intensity.

Davis himself sang his way through the Andante sostenuto, inspiring a warm response from his orchestra (and from the rolling low strings in particular), while the brass throughout sported a subtle suggestion of expressive vibrato. As with the Pastoral, there was but a single dramatic episode, in this case the one that crowns the closing restatement of the Finale's trombone chorale - a real showcase for the orchestra's fine brass section.

The Dresdeners' mellow tones and relative restraint were tellingly underlined the following evening when, even before their concert began, the Pittsburgh players (a more balanced mixture of ages and sexes) rehearsed on stage, projecting with a boldness that was doubly manifest in their actual performance.

Lorin Maazel directed a lean, gleaming and superbly articulated account of Rachmaninov's Kremlin-in-Hollywood Third Symphony, one where logic reigned supreme and the melancholy drift of the composer's bitter-sweet melodies was eloquently voiced by the orchestra's superb string section.

Unlike Davis, Maazel conducted without a score: his was very much a hands-on approach, with each instrumental strand vividly drawn and a consistent alertness to musical incident. The link between Rachmaninov's well- tailored histrionics and the Mediterranean glow of Ravel's Spanish evocations was provided by Prokofiev's fairy- tale First Violin Concerto.

Lithuanian-born Julian Rachlin brought the full measure of his youthful precocity to bear on this exquisite score, thrashing at accents willy- nilly, crudely underlining particular phrases, then tapering his tone to near inaudibility. It was certainly a 'performance', one where a plethora of novel, off-the-cuff exaggerations occasionally gave way to some notably well-integrated playing, most particularly at the start of the last movement. Maazel's accompaniment was typically appreciative of detail (his woodwinds excelled themselves), but Rachlin needs to work the raw ingredients of his keen imagination and admirable technique into a more palatable interpretative recipe - certainly in this concerto.

In fact, if he was listening to Maazel's exquisitely tooled account of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, he would have learnt much. Here there was absolutely no playing to the gallery, but a rare intelligence employed to profoundly musical ends - especially at the start of the 'Feria', which sounded both menacing and full-bodied. And then, to end, a favourite Proms sweetmeat: Bolero - fast, brilliant and with startling climactic gear- changes that, whatever one's view of them, confirmed Maazel and his orchestra as in total control of their considerable personalities.

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