Sunday 30 November 2008

Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY (this time Mozart and Bruckner)

Where's Runnicles has twice before sung the praises of this superb combination: after their visit to the 2007 Edinburgh festival and when they gave a concert this time last year, the first of a four year partnership, at the Festival Hall. On both occasions they have proved one of the more impressive ensembles we have heard. Saturday's programme of Mozart and Bruckner was not, therefore, one we had any intention of missing. The Festival Hall were very good about replacing the ticket I had left in Edinburgh (though I wish the programme seller hadn't questioned my Scottish money).

The first half consisted of Mozart's Linz symphony (no.36). Certainly the orchestra played beautifully, but there did seem to be a little something lacking. In fairness to Jansons, I had last heard the piece four weeks and a day earlier when Charles Mackerras and the SCO played it in Glasgow (in a thrilling performance, the review of which is slightly overdue). Jansons did not find the same bounce and excitement, and I rather missed it.

The second half was another matter entirely: Bruckner's fourth symphony. Now, I don't know the work well enough to specify which version it was that we were hearing and Julian Haylock's programme note is vague to say the least.

The rarely heard first version of the Fourth Symphony appeared in 1874. Four years later Bruckner made a wholesale revision, completely replacing the third and fourth movements. He then overhauled the finale again between 1880 and 1881 and this is the version we hear played in this concert, which also incorporates further revisions Bruckner made between 1886 and 1888.

So, was it the 1881 version we heard or some version dating from 1888 (which was actually the first published version, logically if it's the 1881 version it can't have revisions dating from the end of that decade)? It would be nice to be told.

Not that it really matters of course. In my view, the choice of editions is generally a less important question than that of how wonderfully they are played. And, in this case, the answer is with incredible beauty. This might be expected: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1949 by Eugen Jochum, one of the finest Brucknerians there has ever been. As a result, the orchestra ought to have the composer in their blood to some degree.

Even refurbished, the Festival Hall acoustic sometimes sounds a little odd. Not, though, in this work. The sound was simply stunning, often breathtakingly so. From the opening, and flawlessly played, horn solo, beautifully supported by the stings, on to the thrilling finale which was in no danger of being upstaged by the scherzo as happened the last time I heard the work live (from Deneve and the RSNO), the orchestra produced one glorious sound after another. Time and again the score exposed one section or other of the orchestra, and each time that section shone incandescently, whether it was the superbly rapid dexterity of the flutes in the third movement, the driving bass rhythms at the start of the finale or that brass sound (not showy, in the wonderful manner of the Chicago orchestra, but more subtly beautiful).

This was true 'cathedrals of sound' Bruckner. One awesome climax or subtle texture was created after another, then the pieces put back together in a slightly different way. Never did this Bruckner feel repetitive in the way the worst can. There was also an extremely impressive dynamic range, the quality and delicacy of their quiet playing is about as fine as it gets.

It is true that this was a fairly slow reading, running to around seventy minutes, and it didn't perhaps have the focus or drive of some. But when you can have such sounds it hardly matters, and I was more than content to let it wash over me. If only we had an orchestra like this in the UK (with the right conductors the Philharmonia and the BBC Scottish come close). They return at the end of March for a programme that includes Beethoven's Eroica, some Ravel and Strauss's four last songs (unfortunately I will not make that, in part because I will be hearing Runnicles himself do the Strauss with Christine Brewer just a few months earlier).

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