Wednesday 19 September 2007

From the sublime to the if not quite ridiculous, then certainly much less good (Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans)

It's not fair really. The Bavarians are one of the very best orchestras in the world, and to have to follow them is not a task to be envied. At the festival it fell to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When I first spotted these two concerts in the programme I rushed to book both, in part because of the relative lack of top visiting orchestral names this year, in part because of the comparative absence of Mahler (though we have arguably been overserved with this composer in recent years). But after such drama and quality of playing, even a very fine ensemble would struggle to impress. I suppose, then, that the SFO deserve a measure of latitude in this regard. For reasons that may become apparent as I write, I feel Mr Tilson Thomas deserves none.

As they sat warming up on Wednesday 29th August, I could hear strains of the opening of the finale of Copland's 3rd symphony, which I ignorantly thought a little odd (since it wasn't on the programme). If I knew more about Copland than what is contained in my Bernstein Collectors Edition boxed sets, I would know that it's lifted from the Fanfare for the Comman Man, which was first up. It was also difficult not to notice that, for the third night running, the Usher Hall's own podium was absent. Mr Tilson Thomas, it seems, requires one that is entirely black (possibly to match his attire) and with no rail. The house lights dim. Nothing happens. Finally he emerges, takes his time bowing, before finally launching into the Copland. And what a tune this is. Tilson Thomas took it loudly, as one might argue a fanfare should be. But there was little variety to his reading. It was loud throughout. In truth, it was rather bland, there is no comparison with the range of emotion Bernstein finds on disc. We then moved onto a piece by Ruth Crawford Seeger, her Andante for Strings. Seeger is, according to the programme note, one of those composers whom history has unjustly neglected. Possibly the performance was to blame, but we didn't feel that history had been unkind. Without the slightest pause we lurched into Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, surely this was not what the composer intended. And what a fun piece this is and the SF orchestra played it well. But, once again, there was not quite enough variety to the reading.

What might be termed the overtures over, we got a concerto: Prokofiev's 3rd piano concert with soloist Yefim Bronfman (of whom I have heard good reports in Beethoven's first concerto with Mackerras) who, in an unfortunate error, does not seem to merit a credit at the front of the programme with everyone else. It's not a work I know, but in my experience Prokofiev isn't dull. Or rather, shouldn't be. Here it was, there was no edge to the orchestra. Contrast this with the finest readings on the LSO's cycle of the symphonies with Gergiev. The balance between soloist and orchestra was very poor too. The Usher Hall never normally has this problem, so I place the blame on Tilson Thomas for riding over the piano. This tracks with the fact that there didn't seem to be a huge amount of communication going on between soloist and conductor. The orchestra's quiet playing (something Tilson Thomas hadn't really asked of them before) wasn't a patch on the Bavarians. The variations in the central movement were truly bizarre, in that they didn't feel the least like a set of variations, so little variety was there in Tilson Thomas's reading, especially in tempi. All in all, it was a major disappointment taking us into the interval. A stiff drink was called for, certainly it couldn't hurt.

The second half was also from Russia, but this time Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony, Winter Daydreams, not that you'd have guessed the title from the reading we got, so lacking was it in any sense of temperature. Tension was missing too. There were some odd orchestral balances, especially with the flutes. Again the orchestra's skill in the quieter passages was an issue. However, in fairness, here at least Tilson Thomas did provide a measure of variation in his approach. The adagio began much more promisingly, here at last was some passion, some beauty. But it was fleeting. The reading soon slipped back into dullness. The scherzo was worse. He didn't really play it like a scherzo, and here his conducting was particularly odd - there would be huge sweeping gestures producing not the slightest audible effect (it should be noted that this was typical of his conducting, but simply more pronounced in this movement). In the finale, Mr Tilson Thomas clearly believed that fast and loud equalled exciting. He was mistaken. This is especially true when the band was unable to hold together at the tempi he selected, as too often it was. All in all, a deeply disappointing evening.

And yet we seemed to be in a minority (though the Herald's Michael Tumulty agreed with us, doling out a mere two stars). There was loud applause (though, had one had a decibel meter, it certainly would have been less than Jansons and his Bavarians achieved). Tilson Thomas flounced on and off the stage in the manner of a man who fancies himself to an unbelievable degree. I was reminded of the film Top Gun: "Son, your ego's writing cheques your body can't cash." We got an encore and he decided to announce it. The one time a conductor needn't have bothered, since the Overture to Bernstein's Candide is rather hard to miss. He talked too much introducing it, one rather wished he'd been influenced rather more by the great man in his conducting. He took it too fast and thus provided no contrast with the lyrical second subject. Again, his orchestra was not always quite up to the tempi he chose.

Yet there was more applause, and more flouncing from Mr Tilson Thomas: he closed by miming that he was going off to bed after this - just in case we were concerned. When I got home I did something I almost never do: went to my CD collection and recreated part of the concert: Bernstein conducting the NYPO for the Tchaik and the Copland and the LSO for the Candide. The passion, the contrast he brought underscored just what had been lacking. The comparison was the more telling given Tilson Thomas's references to Bernstein, his work in San Francisco and encounters with Tilson Thomas when he introduced the encore.

It was, therefore, with trepidation and dramatically lowered expectations that I returned to the Usher Hall on Thursday 30th. In fairness, my expectations had already been knocked down twice before. A few months before the festival, while browsing in a CD shop, I picked up one of Tilson Thomas's Mahler recordings (the 5th) with the San Francisco orchestra, reasoning that as I was soon to hear them live, I might as well hear what I was letting myself in for; the results were not confidence inspiring. Then, there had been my brother's dire reports of Deborah Voigt. But even this could not have fully prepared me for the horror that was in store. Her voice is terrible, hideous even. She is quite unable to sustain long notes, be they low or high, quiet or loud, without cracks or wobbles. She was singing the final scene from Salome, but, to be honest, it was difficult to judge the piece as a whole or the accompaniment, so distracting was the voice. Another conductor might have provided more support, but I'm dubious about the extent to which it would have helped. Personally I feel that it shows some nerve to charge people to hear a singer who has wrecked her voice this completely. However, plenty in the audience disagreed and cheered loudly. I am at a loss to explain why. Often, for example when I find a performance dull and someone else is inspired, I can easily accept that it is purely a matter of taste, but I fail to see how anyone can find these sorts of technical flaw appealing. I was not altogether alone - a number of people did not return from the interval.

The second half could only be better. Though I did wonder if I wouldn't have been wiser to join my brother for Capriccio. After the interval we were given Mahler's 7th symphony. I have been fond of this work ever since I first heard it in concert from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They gave a wonderfully coherent performance that completely made sense of this as Mahler's long journey through the night. It was not to be repeated on this occasion. The first movement was rather bland, but more critically it was far too bright and upbeat where a journey into the dark, the unknown, is so much more appropriate. He seemed to have little sense of any big picture (a shame as there are moments in this work were Mahler hints at where he's going). However, it did help to answer one question I had had. How good an orchestra might this be without Tilson Thomas? There are a number of solos in which, unfortunately, the players were in general unflatteringly exposed, the euphonium and first trombone excepted. I should point out something here. When I voiced this view on the Radio 3 messageboard recently I was derided and all but called an idiot since this passage isn't scored for the instrument. I myself was surprised to see it, but I know a euphonium when I see one, and sure enough, after the proms, a former professional trombonist confirmed this. The second movement got off to a poor start too, but the insights into Tilson Thomas's conducting kept flowing: the more complex becomes the score (and in this symphony it gets very complex), the less activity there is from him. Again, in this nachtmusik, any sense of night was as absent as the winter in the previous evening's Tchaikovsky. The off stage percussion didn't work at all, and I was left wishing for Donald Runnicles, who has a wonderful sense for such things. As the scherzo opened he finally seemed to have something to say. But soon things reverted to blandness as he is apparently only interested in the big tunes. There is a wonderful sense of 'things that go bump in the night' when this is well played. Not in this performance. The second nachtmusik was even blander. This movement is bizarre, surreal (with its lute), for me it calls to mind those oddest of dreams that make no sense and come shortly before waking. But Tilson Thomas was going out of his way, or so it seemed, to iron any of that sort of thing out. And so to the finale. One of the toughest pieces that Mahler wrote - the amount going on in the orchestra can make it difficult to hold together coherently (both for conductor and players) and even the great Mahlerian Klaus Tennstedt never fell in love with it. But I adore the daybreak encapsulated in this, with its pastiche of Wagner's Meistersing. Given this team had struggled with speed and complexity, I expected a train wreck here. For the most part it was, though not quite as awful as might have been expected. It doesn't help him that they have in no way earned a daybreak - we haven't been on the long journey through the night, so it is meaningless. The end, where light finally triumphs, was just muddled.

There was loud applause. There were also people leaving. Odd for Mahler in Edinburgh, given it wasn't running long. Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans have not only recorded this, but have won a Grammy. I cannot for the life of me explain why that may be. Especially given the work Abbado has been doing with Mahler of late. As I headed for the pub, I wondered if Finn had had better luck at Capriccio. He hadn't and seemed as in need of libation as I was.

All in all, a deeply disappointing two evenings. And on top of it all sits the irritating Tilson Thomas. His infuriating self-adoration. His apparent disregard for anything not a big tune. His inability to pick tempi his orchestra can cope with or to communicate effectively with them. True, there are worse. Roger Norrington stands unique amongst artists I have seen in that he provoked feelings of physical violence from me (not acted upon, I hasten to add) as he constantly turned to the audience mid-performance, grinning maniacally. I so disliked the experience, I resolved then that I would not attend another concert from him or buy a CD. So, in the grand scheme of things, Tilson Thomas could have been worse, but I certainly shalln't rush to hear him or his orchestra again.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

where's Runnicles in Bayreuth (Guest Review)


Sadly, no, this is not the news that Donald Runnicles will be conducting the next Ring cycle at Bayreuth, that hallowed wooden theatre, with its fully covered orchestra pit which all those who admire Wagner's music dream of attending. In truth, such news would probably be rather annoying (since I have little chance of getting out there any time soon).

However, by a remarkable stroke of luck, having met some very nice Germans in the B&B while down at Glyndebourne, our parents managed to get tickets to this year's rather controversial production of Meistersinger. As you read what follows, it may, perhaps, become evident why they were able to obtain tickets at such short notice. So, we break from normal service as Lucy relates their experience on the 5th of August.


This was an extraordinary experience: I don’t think I’ve ever heard quite so much noise from an opera audience at the end of the performance, mainly boos. It’s also hard to think of any other production which has made me as angry as this one. I felt cheated of the music, because the production fought both the music and the text every step of the way.

The basic idea wasn’t a bad one: Sachs was a rebel from the start, appearing in informal clothes, bare-footed, and refusing to put on his master’s gown, so that he was a natural supporter for Walther. But then again, this meant that the force of Sachs as one of the great and the good coming to see that the freshness of Walther’s approach had something to be said for it was lost. In the course of the opera, while Sachs and Walther moved from iconoclasm to respectability, Beckmesser moved the other way, ending up as a T-shirted performer trying to wow the stage audience and failing lamentably – something that might have worked if the production had been simpler and more disciplined. But there was never a second when there wasn’t some business (or busyness) going on on the stage – the music was never allowed to speak for itself.


Some of the action was plain bizarre. Why did what appeared to be candles (carried by the apprentices dressed in school uniform) turn into table legs? Why did Beckmesser, instead of serenading Eva/Magdalena, deliver his serenade as a lecture to the apprentices/students? The set provided a perfectly good balcony, with flowers, but nobody used it. Why did Walther and Eva hide in full view of everybody on top of a huge statue of a hand which had started off upright but had fallen over (yes, overthrow of the established order, I can see the symbolism of that, but it was a funny place to hide). The production also made a point of equating music with visual art, so that when Sachs helped Walther to improve his song, the song was actually a piece of scenery from a toy theatre, and when Beckmesser gleefully picked up the ‘song’ it was this piece of scenery which he picked up.


There were some nice touches: Sachs interrupted Beckmesser with his typewriter rather than his anvil. For the wonderful quintet between Sachs, Eva, David, Magdalena and Walther, the two couples were arranged with their future children in two enormous photograph frames, and for once there was almost stillness on the stage – but this was spoilt by one of the children squirming about and clutching his crotch.

Musically, it was a very lacklustre performance (though I do wonder how even the finest of conductors would have coped with what was happening on stage). Sachs’s voice was simply not up to the part, and showed the strain badly, but he did at least try to convey the humanity of the man. The only singer who really came through with flying colours was Walther, and he was a good actor too. The theatre is not a very sympathetic venue, in part because its shape gives you the impression that you are a long way from the stage, though I wasn’t troubled by the legendary discomfort of the seats.


I'd add just one thing to all that. Apparently they lock you into the wooden theatre stopping latecomers from getting in. Staff of the Festival Theatre here in Edinburgh: take note!

Wednesday 12 September 2007

EIF Capriccio, or The Director's Concept is Paramount

There follows a belated report (originally drafted about two weeks ago) of the second staged opera of this year’s Festival…

It is now official. This is the worst year for staged opera at the International Festival since 1999 (the year of the Bankamura Turandot, and the last time there were a mere two staged operas on the programme). This production is a disaster on every level, and raises questions about Jonathan Mills’ artistic judgement.

When I first saw Capriccio on the programme back in April, I was surprised. The RSNO and an incredibly starry line-up of soloists (including Anne Sofie von Otter, Soile Isokoski and Christopher Maltman) gave us a magnificent concert performance in 2004. However, doubtless Mills was limited in his choices, although one wonders whether he was so limited in his choice of company (the connection, like that with the dreadful Kosky seems to be a Melbourne one).

Unfortunately, problems set in from the very start. The opera begins with a string sextet. The playing was second rate, meanwhile on stage the insanities of the production were charging full speed ahead. For those of you not au fait with the opera, it is set among the Parisian aristocracy in 1775. Taking his cue from the date of composition (1942) the director, Christian von Gotz, moves the action to that period. Or at least he sort of does. Echoes of Nazi Germany persistently intrude, but the main action still takes place in opulent period costume. Reviews implied this was supposed to bring out the fantasy qualities of the whole exercise – the Count and Countess escaping the horror of Nazidom with this other worldly discussion about opera. The trouble, as with so much this Festival, was that near complete narrative incoherence resulted.

It was really impossible to understand what was going on in the tacked on bits. Who were the two people who visited the Count during the sextet? What was he giving them? What were they giving him? Why did two Gestapo officers come in and then go away again? And why, at the end of the sextet and apart from the fact that the real text requires it, did the various cast members then suddenly decide to get into period costume? The rationale, the motivation for any of this was wholly unclear. This held true throughout the piece, culminating in Clairon (the actress) allowing the Count to strip her of her period dress, and reappearing with her hoops fully visible – but totally unremarked by any of the other cast members; and by the Count’s apparent suicide (totally unsupported by anything in the text).

The period staging was just silly. Servants in jack boots kept wandering on and placing red boxes of various sizes on the stage – it was never clear what the damn things were supposed to signify. There was endless clutter of furniture and props. The characters, particularly in the second half, seemed to be the victims of a collective caffeine high in that nobody could stand still for more than two seconds. Most bizarre of all was the occasional reappearances of the two Gestapo officers from the sextet, possibly the least threatening Nazis since ‘Allo ‘Allo. Periodically two ante-rooms (really looking more like cupboards) would slide on at either side of the stage. The two Gestapo officers would be standing in them, but would soon have to leave in order to accommodate either sexual acts or costume changes. There was no reason for them to be there, and their presence was totally ineffective.

That ineffectiveness was an inevitable result of von Gotz’s resolute determination to flout the text. The Nazis are unthreatening because we know perfectly well that all they can do is stand there. Nobody can be massacred, or arrested or carried off without actually changing the score and the text which, one suspects, von Gotz would have liked but did not dare to do.

The nonsense of the production was compounded by the poor quality of the musical performance. One of Strauss’s major achievements was to write such marvellous music for the female voice. The leading soprano in a Strauss opera should have a rich tone, a warmth, a power. Gabriele Fontana, singing the Countess, was lacking in all these areas. The voice was sour, hard and consistently strained. In fact I’m hard put to remember the last time I found a voice so unpleasant to listen to. Worse was Dalia Schaechter, singing the acress Clairon, whose voice was not even third rate, and at times inaudible. Only Hauke Moller as the composer Flamand and Michael Eder as the director La Roche rose above the mediocre. Eder delivered his tirade against philistinism in the theatre with fire, though he began to run short of breath towards the end. Moller achieved the greatest sense of romance in the whole evening with his evocation of watching the Countess reading, his thoughts in tune with hers, gradually falling in love. But the staging battled to wreck even these performances. For the love scene, von Gotz had the two on opposite sides of the stage. In the tirade, the Gestapo wandered on yet again and did nothing – and their feeble presence actually diminished rather than enhanced the suggestiveness of the speech.

In the pit things were not much better. The orchestral sound was thin, Markus Stenz lacked a feel for the warmth, the drive of Strauss’s music. Time and again you could feel the music fighting him, listening one wanted it to burst free, one wanted to take every player by the scruff of the neck and say to them this is passionate music give yourselves to it. But Stenz was obviously not equipped to inspire that kind of playing.

I was left with several reflections. The first was frustration with this kind of approach to opera. Having read the extensive, and very interesting programme note, about Strauss’s troubled experiences in Nazi Germany I could spot a number of suggestive aspects of the text where subtle and powerful parallels could have been drawn. However, like so many modern opera directors (and most live performance directors inflicted on us at this year’s Festival), van Gotz was utterly incapable of subtlety. He tried to ram his imposed message down the audience’s throat rather than allow the audience space to reflect.

The second was that this is actually a wonderful piece of music – opera as slice of life. I was not wholly convinced by it as a work when heard in concert, but last night I was incredibly struck by the resilience of the work against this combined assault – one somehow felt the beauty, and the suggestiveness of Strauss’s paeans to the importance of art all the more for the fact that the performances and production were so poor.

The third was that I do begin to have a slight qualm about Jonathan Mills’ artistic judgement – in the sense of which productions he is choosing to buy in. From where I’ve been sitting we have had one too many concept productions this year where narrative cohesion is completely destroyed by spectacle and silliness. I do hope this isn’t going to be a sign of things to come.

I have written at length on this production because opera is the art form which means the most to me, and because the International Festival has been an oasis of opera especially since the effective demise of Scottish Opera. To have only two staged productions is, in itself, a worrying development. But the musical qualities of both are what really concern me. While one might make an exception for Orfeo himself, and for the band and some of the choral singing in that same production, neither was of world class standard. Possibly one problem is the funding situation, which leads me to a final thought. Most opera companies now present productions funded by syndicates. WNO’s fabulous Don Carlos was built in that way, and the COC’s Ring Cycle included numerous opportunities for small to large scale sponsorship. Perhaps the Festival might think of doing the same, starting from the £50 mark with minimal benefits and moving upwards to the big bucks. I would certainly make a donation on an annual basis to support staged opera.

In the meantime, we can only hope that next year (as 2000 was to 1999) will prove a bumper opera year.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra PLAY

Several things jumped out of the programme at me in April, but perhaps none more so than Mariss Jansons and his Bavarian orchestra. I don't exactly have a list, per se, at least not one that I've actually taken the time to write down, but somewhere in the back of my mind the artists I hold a particular ambition to hear in the flesh have a mark against their name. Jansons and the Bavarians were certainly on the list.

I have had an affection for the orchestra for some while, mainly through their long association with Eugen Jochum who was their music director during the 50s and built the foundations that make them so fine today (which is why it was arguable as well that he was passed over for the Berlin Philharmonic directorship in favour Herbert von Karajan). Jansons too missed out on the Berlin job when it went to Simon Rattle, though this may have been partly due to his health at the time. Now he holds both the Bavarian and Concertgebouw jobs and has impressed me greatly with his recordings of Mahler and Sibelius. To cut a long story short, or rather shorter, I'd been very much looking forward to these two visits as, on paper, they were arguably the highlights of the programme. This is a dangerous position, since it can lead to disappointment.

But if they normally play this well, I don't think that can be the case terribly often. The first programme, on Monday 27th August, brought Strauss and Sibelius. And here lies my only real quibble with Jansons' choices: Also sprach Zarathustra. Now, I'll admit to not being the world's greatest fan of Strauss, but I suspect even his devotees would acknowledge this isn't his finest moment (certainly my brother, who is always berating me for my lukewarm views on the composer, would say so). The opening few moments, as immortalised by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 A Space Odyssey, are magnificent and the Bavarians played them to perfection. The trouble is that after that there isn't anything quite so magnificent. There are some nice climaxes and Jansons gets some wonderful undulating textures out of his players. However, it does slightly suffer, in the same way as his recording of Heldenleben on the Concertgebouw's own label, from a slightly disjointed feeling. The other disappointment was in the use of the electric organ - I have keenly felt in the years since its 2003 restoration that the Usher Hall's organ has been under-utilised, and this seemed another example. However, I am told by people who know far more than I, that it would not have balanced correctly for the piece and so I shall take them at their word. Tantalising though the piece's quiet end is, it still leaves you thinking of those opening bars.

The meat came in the second half with Sibelius's second symphony. Instantly the weight of this orchestra set the performance apart from the readings of the third and fourth from earlier in the festival. The playing was exceptionally fine and I thought Jansons phrased passages beautifully. He brought a control and, at times, impressive delicacy and if not having quite the sweep that Colin Davis would bring, found a nice ebb and flow. In this symphony particularly, though it holds for much of Sibelius, I find one of the principle axes along which interpretations can be judged is warmth: at one end would sit Bernstein's frigid Vienna reading, and at the other Barbirolli's sunny Halle performance. Jansons falls somewhere in the middle, generally on the warm side. The second movement was more impressive: rough and edgy, painting a vivid landscape as all the best Sibelians seem to, and yet with moments of exceptional beauty. He gave it a darker hue than the first. This was followed by an extremely exciting vivacissimo marked by exceptional string playing. Jansons built the tensions expertly and made a brilliant transition into the finale. And present here was a Davis-like sweep, a sense of grandeur and a magnificent frenzy towards the close firmly wiping the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's performance in their cycle last November from the memory. It seemed more thrilling than both his Oslo and Concertgebouw recordings, but then it's always unfair to judge a live reading against a CD.

For the encore we were treated to more Sibelius in the form of Valse Triste (and here I must come clean and admit my Sibelian credentials took a knock as I failed entirely to recognise it, indeed, from the dance like figure in the middle I mistook it for Strauss, my brother got it in one - excuse me while I hang me head in shame) which was sublimely played. This was followed by genuine Strauss, Finn tells me a waltz, gloriously silly and with absurd forces, including something that was essentially the cousin of an old-fashioned football rattle, from Rosenkavalier. While this was nicely played, both slightly reinforced something I've felt for a while - a good encore is hard, if not impossible to bring off. The end of Sibelius's second is spectacular and I don't need anything else afterwards. If you've played it as well as the Bavarians had, it's difficult to follow it in anyway that will improve. Best left alone. This was one of the great lessons of McMaster's programming of the Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies in individual concerts last year, it was amazing how satisfying a gem like the 4th or 8th could be on its own.

Mind you, perhaps, given the rapturous reception, they could be excused it. This was enthusiastic applause, and deservedly so. But it was also slightly the applause in the way that a man who has come across an oasis in the desert drinks. This is a slightly unfair metaphor, as there have been many fine things prior to this in this year's programme (Ades and the COE, Brendel, Jarvi and the RSNO, the BBC Scottish, the SCO), but this was orchestral playing in another league, and one that so far hadn't been present. Indeed, it was enough to draw out previous director, Brian McMaster who, as well as Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, could be spotted taking his seat in the grand circle.

The Bavarians were back the following evening with a more solid programme: Beethoven's Egmont overture, Debussy's La Mer and Shostakovich's 5th symphony (of whose work Jansons is a renowned interpreter). The orchestra's playing in the Beethoven was wonderfully rich. Jansons gave a very exciting and at times fierce reading which called to mind Harding's disc of overtures with the Bremen Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. Certainly it was better than his recent, and not entirely successful, disc of Beethoven's second symphony with the Concertgebouw. True, the way he judged his pauses didn't always totally work at the start, they felt a little forced rather than the unbearable tension someone like Mackerras makes of them. None the less, it was a fine curtain raiser.

With La Mer, I must once again confess, I don't overly care for the work; I don't think it conjures the sea half as well as something like Britten's interludes. I have just one lukewarm recording in my collection (from Abbado and his Lucerne orchestra) and have only heard it live once before, when the Cleveland Orchestra paired it with Mahler's seventh during their memorable visit 3 years ago. They played it well enough and Jansons' control at the start (using just his fingers - was impressive), but I must leave it to wiser persons to judge the interpretation.

The real treat came in the second half with the Shostakovich 5th. One his more accessible, coming as it does from a period when he needed to curry favour following the disgrace that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had brought. The slow opening movement was beautifully played, the same rich textures that had marked out the Beethoven present here, and the same fierce power when called for. Jansons brought a real wit and panache to the second movement while giving us a darkly haunting largo. The finale was nothing short of electric. Jansons chose a brisk tempo, but the orchestra held up impressively where a lesser band might have stumbled. It was exciting from the opening and only got better. I haven't yet sampled any of his readings on disc, but have spied the EMI cycle (which features a number of orchestras, including the Bavarians) cheaply; part of me wonders whether I really need more to set beside the Haitink, Kondrashin and Rostropovich cycles, and the part of me that was listening to this performance says 'hell yes'.

As I read the paragraph back, I realise what a poor review it is. But then it's always harder to write about something that's blown you away. For a start, you get swept up, whereas in a dire reading you have ample time to sit back and note the million reasons why. From the reception, those present seemed to have agreed. We got another two encores, though the way the symphony finished, I really wish we hadn't. I have no idea what they were (I wish that conductors would sometimes announce them), the note in my programme says "Mozart?" for the first and "something else" for the second. Anyone reading this who knows better is very welcome to share that knowledge.

All in all, two extremely impressive nights I won't soon forget. So much so that at the start of November I shall be catching this team in London from Haydn's 101st symphony and Mahler's 5th.

The playing of the orchestra was exceptional (not least their ability in the quietest passages, which I think is always one thing that separates the good from the great) and ranks alongside the Berliners and the Clevelanders as one of the absolute finest it has been my privilege to hear live. Jansons' conducting was something special to watch too. Every movement gained a response (as opposed to some whose flouncing gestures seem irrelevant). There were one or two fascinating moments when he seemed to stop altogether, almost as if saying 'you know what to do here, you should be paying attention to that, anything I add at this stage will only get in the way'.

I feel luck to have seen and heard this, and if you get the chance you should too.