BBC Proms reviews

Prom 64: SFS/Tilson Thomas – Ives, Strauss and Shostakovich @ Royal Albert Hall, London

1 September 2007

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

The first Proms performance of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony was given on Saturday evening by, appropriately, an American orchestra.

The work, composed in 1901 for organ and strings and variously reorchestrated until 1914, is an evocative spun thread of hymn themes, tastefully scored over its three movements.This performance from the San Francisco Symphony was characterised throughout by a lucidity of string texture.

The refined violin tone, though perhaps unsuited to the sparky sort-of-scherzo at the work’s centre, did much for the bucolic lines of the first movement. The small brass section effortlessly melded into the luminous textures. Michael Tilson Thomas took time to ensure that the difficult exposed harmonies fell correctly into place – Ives’ use of chromatics and dissonance is large – and that the delicious woodwind solos sprung magically from the score. There was, however, an occasional loss of crispness: brighter and sharper was the other American work on the programme, a glittering encore of Bernstein’s Candide overture.

The final scene from Strauss’ Salome brought the concert’s first half to a close. I recall Deborah Voigt‘s unsatisfactory, uncharismatic recital at the Barbican this year, and the vocal problems that it highlighted – the imprecise top notes, the choking bottom register and a lack of nuance in delivery. Yet here, performing her operatic repertoire of choice and not hiding behind a score, Voigt proved a more absorbing performer.

The problems were still noticeably there, with some wayward tuning up above and an overly assertive vibrato never far from the surface, but this hard-as-steel soprano was well suited to Strauss’ arching lines. I can’t say that it’s a voice I care much for, but Voigt’s involving delivery (especially her use of whispered parlando) created a palpable sense of drama. Tilson Thomas struggled valiantly to reveal all the repulsive, grotesquely sensual layering of Strauss’ score, but he too often overpowered his soloist’s middle register and a sense of danger, present in the soprano voice, was lacking in the orchestral playing.

It was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was given the most fascinating performance. The cleanliness and technical excellence of the orchestra’s performance removed any grit from the work, but Tilson Thomas conducted in lengthy, elastic lines, his architectural oversight conjuring much tension. The final movement lost something with regard to erupting violence, but its percussive marches and the elegiac central section drew together homogenously, climaxing not with overstated irony, but with ecstatic, hard-earned resolution.

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