Recently it was announced that Mariss Jansons was to withdraw from some concerts this autumn while he undergoes a scheduled operation. His health has been a concern since he suffered a heart attack while conducting La Boheme in 1996. I mention this because, as he danced about on the podium (his own, a metal framed construction that seems always to accompany him whether I hear him in Edinburgh or London), you would not have supposed that to be the case.
His last visit to Edinburgh three years ago, with his other band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, was rather special. Having heard him with the Concertgebouw in the less than ideal acoustic of the Barbican, their two festival concerts promised to be a treat. Certainly in terms of pure orchestral beauty they were.
Their first programme began with Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. There were some extremely beautiful moments, especially in the chorale section at the end, and it provided a nice showcase for the Concertgewbouw's winds to shine. And yet, it was slightly underwhelming as a curtain raiser, something of a curiosity and not Stravinsky's greatest work.
Much better was to follow with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. It was wonderfully played from start to finish, especially the wonderful pizzicato sections in the second movement. Jansons ensured both tight playing from the ensemble and plenty of drama.
Perhaps the most interesting work of the evening came after the interval with Berio's Four Dedicaces. Now it was the turn of the brass to shine as, above shimmering strings, they reeled off brilliant fanfare after brilliant fanfare. Each of the pieces seemed to build to a climax more frenzied than the last with the third, Festum adding a nice driving drum rhythm. In some ways, it might have been better played at the start in place of the Stravinsky.
They finished up with the 1945 version of Stravinsky's Firebird suite. This was perhaps best demonstration of the textures the orchestra is capable of producing. If not always absolutely the most compelling of readings, the infernal dance was absolutely thrilling and Jansons built the piece to a suitably dramatic conclusion.
They played two encores: a piece of Grieg and a Brahms' Hungarian Dance. Indeed, such was the panache with which they did so it would not have been a huge stretch to argue these were the highlight of the evening.
The next evening they were back for Mahler's epic 3rd symphony. This seemed to set to be something exceptional. Jansons is for my money one of the finest Mahler conductors around, with a number of excellent recordings of the composer under his belt. Add to this the Concergebouw's rich sound and particularly affinity with Mahler, not to mention a pretty amazing 2nd at the Barbican last December, and the bar was set pretty high. How, then, did they fare? On the one hand it was well served by the same extraordinary high standard of playing they had displayed the previous evening; there was also the routine excellence of the solos, such as from trombonist Bart Claessens or Ruth Visser on cor anglais. The climaxes were incredible: the energy with which they closed the first movement was really quite something.
Yet, overall it didn't entirely grab me. The first movement, Summer Marches In, didn't quite make that transition as vividly as some, neither as dark at the outset nor as bright at the end as it can be. The second movement seemed a little frenetic: a meadow teeming with life rather than the lilting flowers that are more common. This is no bad thing in and of itself, but it seemed to lessen the contrast between it at the third. The third, of course, is notable for the fabulous posthorn solo, played on a real posthorn (uncredited in the programme) rather than the trumpet one often encounters these days. I actually find myself slightly preferring a mellow Viennese trumpet, which gives slightly cleaner notes. More crucially, Jansons' placement of it, alternately in the stage left and then stage right wings of the Usher Hall was pretty uninspired and not a patch on the magical three-dimensional effect gained when last I heard it there, with the horn outside the door of the dress circle. In the fourth movement Anna Larsson made a disappointing soloist - "the world is deep", which should send shivers down the spine didn't; not even close. On the other hand, there was magnificent choral singing from the ladies of the Festival Chorus and the RSNO Junior Chorus whose "Bimm, Bamms" chimed in properly heavenly fashion. The finale was pretty well done too, and yet I didn't feel quite the epic distance travelled I should, it wasn't quite so achingly beautiful nor did it tug the heart strings quite so hard as the very finest accounts. In fairness, the symphony is incredibly hard to pull off really well and there are vanishingly few accounts that do so.
Still, all that said, they remain a very fine band with a very fine conductor and I hope we see them together in Edinburgh again soon.