When Wolfgang Sawallisch took over as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he announced his intention to work on the sound - perhaps even to restore some of the intensity of the string tone of his predecessor Eugene Ormandy's day. Listening to the Philadelphia in Brahms's Second Symphony, at last Thursday's Prom, it was hard to say that he'd succeeded. One could sense how hard Sawallisch had worked at the interpretation: the symphony was carefully, convincingly shaped, with longer paragraphs especially well-moulded. But the lack of character in the solos was more than faintly disturbing. The woodwind phrases at the beginning of the third movement, the exquisite long horn solo towards the end of the first - it was surprising how little dynamic rise and fall there was in any of these. A wicked, subversive voice at the back of my mind whispered Stravinsky's remark about the organ, "the monster never breathes".
The comparison with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra's Prom on Monday was very instructive. The Danish sound had depth and inner tension, and a woodwind solo was an event - a personal message even. The Danes also brought a new work, Poul Ruders's Viola Concerto - not exactly beguiling in its harmonies or scoring, but with powerfully sustained singing lines, and an equally powerful sense of things coming together in the final bars. The Philadelphians brought Bernard Rands's Canzone per Orchestra, three orchestral "songs without words" inspired by Joyce's poetry. This was full of beguiling sounds - sweet or lush harmonies in velvety scoring; but it felt as though Rands had gone through the poems line by line, setting this phrase or that image in short bursts of instrumental recitative, without bothering much about what it added up to. The end result was nebulous and irritatingly shortwinded - about as far from Brahms's sustained flights of song as could be imagined.
There were compensations. On Friday the Philadelphians played a Sawallisch speciality: Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. It was almost, but not quite, as compelling as Sawallisch's South Bank performance with the Philharmonia earlier this year. But before that came Hindemith's Cello Concerto, despite the lovely tune in the slow movement one of his less-appealing string concertos, and (a last minute change) the Overture to Wagner's early opera Das Liebesverbot - a sorry substitute for Schumann's magnificent Manfred Overture. As programmes go it was a baffllng oddity.Reuse content