It's just nine months since the Concertgebouw last payed a visit to the Barbican. On that occasion they were under the baton of Bernard Haitink; this time round their music director Mariss Jansons was in charge.
For my money, this was excellent news. While Haitink is always technically excellent, I often find I want a more emotive reading. This is not a problem I have with Jansons who has impressed me greatly each time I have heard him with the Bavarians (indeed, that impressive first encounter is the reason PLAY is capitalised in the title - intended to convey just what a show they'd put on, it's become something a tradition when I review him).
Actually, while he's impressed greatly with the Bavarians, and also with the Oslo Philharmonic in many of the recordings he made during his 21 year tenure there, on discs with the Concertgebouw I've often felt he didn't have quite the same chemistry. However, any such doubts were instantly erased last night.
They began with an energetic and exciting reading of the overture from Smetana's The Bartered Bride. It almost seemed calculated to show off just what the ensemble could do, something especially true in the many passages played ultra quietly.
The stage was then rearranged for Martinů's Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani. As a work, it was new to me and didn't entirely sweep me away. It seemed to lack quite the communication and rivalry between the two ensembles of the best such concerti (such as Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste). Still, they played superbly and it grew on me as it progressed. The melodrama of the slow movement was particularly well served by the orchestra's uniquely rich sound and the finale had plenty of thrills. In the final chord, Jansons judged the balance between the strings and the piano to tantalising perfection. Perhaps I just need to make better acquaintance with the piece (feel free to recommend a recording in the comments below). It's also nice to have both these composers present in a programme: I don't seem to come across them in the concert hall nearly as often as I'd like.
Lack of familiarity was not a problem after the interval with Brahms' fourth symphony (indeed, it is only a few months since I last heard it live, on that occasion from Metzmacher). Jansons provided a stunning reading, one which had no lack of drama. He built and held the tension well, and when he did release it, still held enough to ensure the work didn't go flat. The beauty of the slow movement was stunning, from the opening horn call to the fabulous pizzicato playing. Both the exiting third movement and the finale were given similarly fine treatments.
Throughout the evening, Jansons's conducting was full of passion and energy. Sometimes he used big gestures, leaping up and down on the podium more than once. Yet he also knew when to hold back and let the orchestra get on with things, this was especially true in the Brahms, where he often stopped using the baton.
And the orchestra? Well, I complained last time about the silliness of Gramophone calling them the world's greatest, but that was mainly because I think such titles are silly. There can be no doubt that the Concertgebouw are among the finest ensembles in the world. I haven't, as I often do, singled out any players for special praise. This was also the case last time, and now, as then, it's not because there was no special playing. Far from it; rather, their playing is just of such a uniformly high standard it is difficult to single anyone out.
I was not alone and they were rapturously received and gave us two encores. Both were superbly played, the second was Dvořák's Slavonic Dance No.8 in G minor from the op.46 set (I think the first may have been No.2 in E minor from the same opus but I'm not certain). Please correct me below if you can.
Better is, hopefully, in store this afternoon with Mahler's second symphony, sensibly in a programme all of its own. The London Symphony Chorus are on duty for that one (though my only nagging concern is how they'll cope with the lack of an organ in the Barbican). I doubt there are tickets left, but if you're in London, I suggest you do everything legally possible to obtain one.