Sunday 13 December 2009

Jansons and the Concertgebouw PLAY Mahler

The timing was a nice co-incidence. After all, as the Berlin Philharmonic pointed out today on their Twitter feed:

On this day in 1895: @BerlinPhil premiered Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the composer conducting

The Concertgebouw, have, of course, had a long association with the music of Mahler, dating back to Mengelberg's tenure. Their wonderfully rich sound always seems to have a special affinity with Mahler. They hold, too, the distinction of having made my favourite recording of the second symphony: a rather crackly 1951 performance which, despite having Klemperer at the helm, fits onto a single disc and benefits from the presence of the incomparable Kathleen Ferrier. Jansons has also enjoyed great success with Mahler, most notably in his superb recordings of the sixth symphony with the LSO and the first with the Oslo Philharmonic. The stage, then, was set for something special as they teamed up to play the Resurrection in the second of their two appearances at the Barbican this weekend. They did not disappoint.

Throughout the orchestra played astonishingly well, the wonderfully throaty cello sound at the work's opening giving a taste of what was to come. They were as at home at extreme pianissimo as during the mighty climaxes. At the helm Jansons brought as much drama and passion as one could want. Generally he opted for a middling pace, the performance running to around eighty-five minutes (ninety if you count the pause).

He never let the second movement get too sunny, and the darker moments were very dark indeed. But then to complement that was the aplomb with which the violins and violas strummed their instruments like lutes. The third movement, sharing its tune with St Anthony's Sermon to the Fish in Des Knaben Wunderhorn was fierce and dramatic with the central climax gloriously realised.

Jansons raised the game still further during the Urlicht, playing through the last three movements without a gap, as he placed his offstage forces to maximum effect: brass (probably in the foyer) balancing beautifully against Bernarda Fink, who sang nicely, though opted for something warmer than the chilly Ferrier that is my ideal.

They had, though, saved the best for last. Offstage trumpets, horns and percussion seemed to be coming from as many as four different places (that or there was a lot of running around going on). Both from the wings, sometimes with the doors open, sometimes not; some trumpets and horns seemed placed further back, presumably in the foyer. Not only did this sound simply glorious, but their playing was faultless and their timing judged to perfection. Donald Runnicles himself, the grandmaster of offstage instrumental placement, could do not better, and in this regard my praise gets no higher than that.

There was a solid performance from soprano Ricarda Merbeth, though her voice was perhaps a little thin at the top, and the London Symphony Chorus sang superbly and from memory. Jansons kept them seated right up until the very end, so as to maximise the effect of the finale, which really did seem sufficient to raise the dead.

It was ninety minutes of glorious sound. From winds to strings, brass to percussion, there was not the ghost of a weak link amongst the ensemble. Special mention, though, to Bart Claessens for his superb and exposed solo work on trombone. They were rapturously received and the standing ovation we gave them was well deserved.

True, it would have been nice to have been in a hall with a real organ one can physically feel, but such was the impact of the forces they had mustered that that hardly mattered much. More seriously, one questions whether there was really a need for a five minute break between the first two movements and whether this was really the best point to bring on the soloists. According to Wikipedia, Mahler's score does indeed call for this (I haven't got my copy to hand but will check it tomorrow). However, to my mind it lets out the drama and tension that have been built up.

They've recently performed this in Amsterdam, so one must hope they had the sense to tape it for later release on the orchestra's record label. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with his very fine earlier recording with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos.

Let us hope the Concertgebouw return to London soon under the baton of their music director. Better yet, let us hope the Edinburgh International Festival has the sense to book them to do some more Mahler in his anniversary year.

In the meantime, a performance this fine deserves an award. Actually, it's an award I should have first given some time back to someone else (so in breaking with tradition it will be named after them rather than the inaugural recipient). I present to Mariss Jansons:

The Donald Runnicles Award for Outstanding Placement of Offstage Instruments to Produce a Magical Effect, Unreproducible on even the Very Best Hi-Fi Equipment.

Update - 2009-12-14

It seems likely we will see a lot more of them. Barry Millington's review in the standard ends with this wonderful nugget:

Immediately after the concert Jansons signed a contract on behalf of the orchestra as one of the five new International Associates of the Barbican.


Pieter Hendriks said...

I sang in the choir for the performances in Amsterdam and can tell you that they have indeed been recorded for cd. The first concert will also be televized somewhere in june or july.
Pieter Hendriks

Tam Pollard said...

Great news. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard better off stage sound. Real surround sound. Yes, let's hope they are back later in the year with Mahler 3. They are playing it in Lucerne so who knows, maybe Edinburgh or London. Fantastic concert.

Tam Pollard said...

That would be quite something. Mills (the current Edinburgh director) doesn't really like Mahler so we'll be lucky to see it up hear but it might well make it to the Proms (fingers crossed).

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