On the final night of their mammoth European tour, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a brilliantly energetic programme to a delighted Bridgewater Hall audience. There was a great deal to commend in the playing, despite some capricious tempo choices in Mahler’s first symphony.

Marin Alsop © Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music
Marin Alsop
© Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music

The concert’s opening work, and by far the least familiar, was Clarice Assad’s Terra Brasilis Fantasia on the Brazilian National Anthem. This presents a warm-hearted whirlwind history of the country, from the beginnings of Portuguese colonisation to its present-day ethnic diversity. An exotic soundworld was created from uncommon percussion techniques alongside a more conventional orchestral palette. Snippets of the anthem itself are heard in various guises, sculpted into Spanish, Jewish and Mozartian forms, to describe the many contributors to the modern country. All of this was done with tremendous sparkle and good humour, flicking from one idiom to the next in a flash. The final appearance of the anthem in full, though, was carried with great dignity and pride.

The other Latin element in the programme was Bernstein’s own 1961 West Side Story: Symphonic Dances suite. The orchestra’s bright, glossy sound suited this Broadway music perfectly, and Marin Alsop’s highly energised conducting produced playing of the highest drama. The percussion section were central to this, launching into the Mambo with explosive energy. Playing from other sections of the orchestra was sleek and well drilled in some complex rhythms and daringly high trumpet passages. The softer moments, by contrast, came off with great beauty, notably in the recurring “Somewhere” theme, given at first to string quartet and then to solo horn. The bright, shimmering sound of the upper strings brought a note of optimism to the final bars, despite the tragic context.

Programming West Side Story with Mahler’s first symphony inevitably highlighted the many youthful aspects of the symphony, characterised by its links to the Wayfarer song cycle. Alsop’s direction confirmed this, culminating in blazing energy, but other aspects of it were a little troubling. The first movement’s early bird calls were far from shy, but the Wayfarer’s journey seemed slow to find momentum before suddenly taking off with a jolt. Once it got going, it bounded along vigorously, spurred on by big trumpet fanfares and Alsop’s intense, two-handed conducting. The same style made for an exceptionally heavy “Ländler” second movement, taken at a tempo far slower than is commonly heard. The vigorous 3-in-a-bar conducting made it strong and muscular; this was effective in places, but other moments, such as the horns’ repeated stopped quavers, felt over-emphasised. At both appearances, the final section of the dance saw a sudden acceleration to a more freely-flowing 1-in-a-bar, which felt like a strange diversion from what we had already heard.

The ensuing slow movement, essentially a funeral march, was then taken rather unsentimentally, although bassist Ana Valéria Poles played her solo with great beauty. It was not until quite late that any particularly striking poignancy was found, at the appearance of the major key when in the Wayfarer cycle, the hero sits down to die beneath the Linden tree. Here the strings played with an exquisitely light touch, bringing to mind the falling tree blossom.

The finale erupted into life with ferocious energy, evoking a hellish inferno. The intensity was maintained through most of the movement. It was taken at a daringly quick tempo at which the orchestra did well to instill strong articulation into their playing. The softer passages were not overly lingered upon before the youthful fire returned. The two timpanists produced tremendous power with very hard sticks, and the entire brass section played with great precision and broad, full sound. The final appearance of the climactic D major theme, with the horn section standing as instructed, saw Alsop continuing at the same brisk tempo. She charged to a thrilling, triumphant close, with a thunderous bass drum roll closing the symphony. It was answered by a hearty roar from the sizeable audience. This was certainly a memorable performance containing a great deal of superb playing, even if some of the tempo peculiarities were rather difficult to understand. The sense of youthful energy in the finale was exceptionally strong, strongly reminiscent of the high spirits earlier given to West Side Story.

The enthusiastic reception earned the audience two excellent encores. The bustling Brazilian and Shostakovich miniatures neatly complemented the programme and rounded off an enormously enjoyable concert. It also concluded the orchestra’s vast tour, which has taken some 120 musicians around Europe. I will certainly be doing my best to catch them next time they’re here.