Proms 64 & 65: San Francisco Symphony / Tilson Thomas, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Californians brought a corner of New England to the Proms. By far the most affecting item in Michael Tilson Thomas's two concerts with the San Francisco Symphony was Ives' homely Third Symphony. No marching bands, no cacophonous collages, rather a communion of hymn tunes sounding through the tiny community of Ives' youth.

The symphony began life as organ pieces and reedy chordings from the woodwinds were a constant reminder of those origins. But the real charm of this performance lay in the gracefulness of its execution, the harmonic and rhythmic displacements, so discreetly voiced as to sound entirely second nature.

The shimmer of church bells at the close was a moment only Ives could have imagined – a faded snapshot restored. The players embraced the image like it was personal to their experience; nothing else in their programmes came off the page in quite the same way.

Admittedly, Tilson Thomas achieved miracles of balance in switching from sacred to all-out profanity when Deborah Voigt took the stage for the final scene of Strauss' Salome. The wash of orchestral sound never drowned out the singer. Voigt was able to use the words like they, too, were objects of her desire. And we could enjoy the luxury of the Hall's organ plumbing its own depths of depravity before Salome's final ecstasy. Voigt rose to that.

But the overriding impression was one of circumspection. It grew stronger in an oddly detached account of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Much the same was true of Mahler's Seventh Symphony the following night. No one understands Mahlerian syntax better than Tilson Thomas. But what we experienced here was a classic case of text inhibiting spirit.

The phantasmagorical score was laid bare in all its ear-pricking detail – but the energy was nowhere. Not even the finale's eccentric danceathon ever achieved lift-off. Perhaps the failed woodwind entry in their encore of Bernstein's Candide Overture the previous night was not just an accident, but a bad omen.

BBC Proms continue to 8 September (020-7589 8212). Visit independent.co.uk/promcast for exclusive daily podcasts and to listen online to highlights from the previous night's Prom

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