Friday 20 June 2008

A weekend of culture, Part III: Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY, again!

Another rather late review, and the third and final instalment of my November weekend in London. Part of the reason I haven't been in the greatest hurry to add this is that there isn't a vast amount to be added to the praise I heaped on Jansons and this fine ensemble when they came to Edinburgh last August.

This programme was, however, superior to the ones we had then: Haydn's symphony no.104 and Mahler's symphony no.5. Add to this that Jansons is one of the finest Mahlerians around, in my view, as evidenced by such recordings as his Oslo first symphony and his LSO sixth, and there was the potential for a special night.

The ranges of gestures that Jansons used to control the Bavarians during the Haydn was impressive, at times he would do nothing at all, when clearly their attention was best focused elsewhere and he had done the work in rehearsal, at others there would be a sweep or a marching action that was replicated in the ensemble's playing. The orchestra was somewhat scaled back to give more of a chamber feel, but they still had their wonderful richness. The minuet was not quite the focal point on which the work turned, in the way it would have been under Jochum but the finale was wonderfully exciting, with the timpani playing particularly well and a thrilling coda.

The Mahler is much more of challenge, and the first problem comes with the wonderful trumpet solo in the opening bars. From the programme I assume this was played by Hannes Laubin, who appears to be the principal, but I am open to correction. It was stunning. Taken at a slowish pace, with clipped phrasing and played with a precision that isn't found on most recordings, let alone a live concert. Jansons built the rest of the first movement solidly, without it entirely overwhelming, and held the tension well.

He let things go in the overwhelming second movement though, which built to a shattering climax with the triangle, a favourite part of mine, played to near perfection. Indeed, at this point I was almost ready to go home and I'm not sure how Jansons and the orchestra managed to carry on. The sound of the orchestra, the cellos in particular, was also stunning.

To the extent there were problems, they arose in the third movement, which is normally where they do. In the fifth it is fairly easy to make the 4th movement beautiful, and the finale exciting. The problem is that musically the first two movements can prove more of a climax than the finale. This is a problem for the Rattle/BPO recording and also for Haitink's live Concertgebouw reading. Charles Mackerras solves the problem with the RLPO by holding back in the earlier movements and building to the finale. Jordan, conducting the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, solved it by gradually ratcheting down the tension during the scherzo. Jansons had already passed the point where the Mackerras approach could be used, and he didn't follow Jordan as the start of the scherzo was not at all fierce. As a result the transition to the adagietto didn't really work. The other problem is that the movement contains, in effect, a miniature horn concerto, and while this was well enough played, next to the trumpet solo it paled. That said, the fourth movement, when it came, was divine. Jansons then built well from this into a thrilling finale.

All in all it was a good and solid performance, and from many it won a standing ovation. I don't think, given the third movement, it quite deserved that, nonetheless, this is an impressive combination and I will be attending as many of their concerts here over the next four years of their relationship as I can.

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