The Pittsburgh Symphony has just completed an East Coast tour that included two date at Avery Fisher Hall. The second afternoon found the orchestra playing Berlioz's "Beatrice and Benedict" overture, the SEcond Chopin Piano Concerto (F minor, op. 21) Martha Argerich, soloist, and Walton's First Symphony, under the baton of music director Andre Previn.
The Pittsburgh has had more eminent music directors than one might thinkm it deserves, just as could be said for Los Angeles or san Francisco. But the strong faith of William Steinberg, Previn's predecessor, and Previn himself, have brought the ensemble far ahead of other equivalent orchestras.If one talks of the top five ensembles in the country (Boston, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia), with Los Angeles as sixth, then, clearly, one must put Pittsburgh in top contention for the seventh rank, with qualities that portend its ability to ultimately smash the "top five" ascendancy one and for all.
Clearly sections of the Pittsburgh need work. The strings are lean, but not especially lovable or pretty. some of the brass is not as eloquent as it might be, etc. etc. But then again, some of the "top five" have severe and glaring problems, too. And what the Pittsburgh has that several of the more prestigious groups do not is enthusiasm and a passionate commitment to performance.
There are more polished performances of Waltons's symphony to be heard (PRevin's 12-year-old recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, for one). But this orchestra gives Previn an extra edge, extra strength -- that added dimension of playing with maximum commitment, which transcended any surface blemishes, and delivered a performance of this marvelous work that sizzled, ached, and thrilled.
Not for wit seekers is Walton's bold, tempestuous work. Previn's control over the vastness is remarkable - a vivid sense of the theatricality of the music, the opulence of the scoring, the importance of balance and detail. In fact, Previn's balances are some of the clearest to be heard from any maestro today. In the loudest, thickest orchestral melee, one can hear just about every detail the composer intended to be heard. And Previn manages something very unfavored in this overamplified age -- a genuine orchestral pianissimo: hues so quiet, they seem almost inaudible. Audiences never know how to listen to them, so most conductors do not bother anymore, satisfied with a mezzo forte when three "p's" are demanded.
Previn the accompanist-collaborator was tested to the limit by Mis Argerich in the Chopin, for she, too, is a daring artist, willing to take risks, willing to probe and ferret out nuance, exploit tastefully the pliancy of line, and use the extremities of the dynamic range to help elucidate the poetry and passion of the music. Here, Chopin was given his full due in a performance that found more poetry, more fire, more tenderness, more excitement than one ever hope to hear in one reading. With Miss Argerich in the lead, and Previn and the Pittsburgh the attentive, superbly attuned partners, it was indeed memorable concertmaking.
Davis and the Philharmonic
The one thing that seems to be missing from Andrew Davis's musical makeup is the element of risk-taking. Everything tends to come out as rather bland and unimaginative under his baton.
He also seems very conscious of his presence on the podium, almost calling attention to himself with every stylized gesture, every wave of the hand and flick of the baton.
The New York Philharmonic is not the ideal orchestra to direct in this manner: The players tend to ignore much of the overwrought histrionics and merely follow the beat. And this is perhaps why Davis's recent account of Vaughan Williams's "A London Symphony" did not exloit all the color and the monumental fire it might have, and even ought to have. There were lovely moments; Davis's briskness kept things moving right along. And at least there was not the lumpy chugging heard in the opening Rameau suite from "Les fetes d'hebe." There, the orchestra sounded marvelous tonally. But over all it sounded choppy and inelegant. And things surely did not click in the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto. Michel Beroff does not project vast amounts of personality, and his Steinway sounded as if sponge rubber was on each and every hammer.
In watching Andrew Davis over the past five years, he has not blossomed forth as he should. His cocoon of elaborate gestures and (all too common in British musicians) severe restraining seem to intrude on his ability to lose himself in the music, to exploit more consistently the flashes of insight and utter beauty that peer through now and then. Until he can really do this, he will remain one of the more frustrating young talents on the international circuit today.