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.