For my money, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are one of the finest conductor/orchestra partnerships available, and since both Beethoven's 4th piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony are favourites of mine, their first concert always had the potential to be one of the festival's highlights. Given these high expectations, it is doubly impressive that not only did they not disappoint but if anything they exceeded them.
For the Beethoven they were joined by Mitsuko Uchida. Together they delivered a spellbinding 3rd concerto in London a few years ago. The 4th, from its soft solo opening onwards, is perhaps even better suited to her delicate style (indeed, the movement of her fingertips reminded me slightly of Gergiev's conducting during the opening concert). Though nearly not, as just as her fingers were about to descend for the first time, there was a loud clang somewhere in the auditorium. Fortunately after recomposing herself she got started and proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes dazzling us, not only from the keyboard, but also with the wonderful look she gave to silence the audience before the second movement, and when discarding her flowing yellow silken top.
Beneath her Jansons provided supremely judged accompaniment so that no matter how softly she played the orchestra was never in danger of swamping her. Kazushi Ono (the conductor of Opera de Lyon's lamentable Fidelio) could have learnt a lot. Indeed, in the wake of that production, the Bavarians provided a much needed tonic by way of a masterclass in just how well Beethoven can be played. They found more drama in the intensely wrought opening chords of the slow movement than Ono managed in an entire opera.
Uchida was rapturously received and followed Beethoven with some sparkling Scarlatti. She returns to the Usher Hall this evening for a solo recital of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann which I for one will not be missing.
After the interval came Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony. Jansons has a long history with the composer having recorded a well regarded cycle of the symphonies for Chandos during his decades in charge of the Oslo Philharmonic. He has also recorded a pretty impressive 6th with the Bavarians. Even so, I don't think I had expected quite such a compelling performance as the one that followed.
He was helped by the calibre of the playing, particularly the fine string sound but also the quality of the wind solos in the first movement. As the symphony unfolded, it became clear that this is an ensemble that can do more or less whatever Jansons asks of it and is acutely responsive to him. Every gesture, however slight, could be heard in the orchestra.
Using the instrument he had at his disposal, Jansons tugged time and time again on the heart strings, especially in the climaxes during the first movement. He took us to the edge of our seats and then some with the intensity of the third. And then there was the brass chorale and the low strings fading to nothing and leaving nothing to be said. The result was devastating.
In short, it was a concert that ranks among the very best I've heard.
It was a slight shame, therefore, that someone of Jansons' fine musical judgement thought an encore would add anything. True, they play Sibelius superbly (as evidenced by their account of the 2nd symphony the last time they were here) and Valse Triste is very nice, especially with those strings. Indeed, it seems to be a favourite encore of theirs since they also gave it in 2007. All the same, I would have preferred not to have had it - less is sometimes more. But this is a minor reservation.
It was always going to be difficult to follow that, but on paper a big choral Mahler symphony (in this case the second) fit the bill quite well. Jansons has good pedigree as a Mahler conductor: his Oslo recording of the first symphony and his London recording of the sixth rank among my favourites and I heard him deliver a good performance of the second with his other orchestra, the Concertgebouw, at the Barbican a few years ago.
In the event, while there was a lot to like, for me it fell short of what they had achieved on first night. The quality of the strings was perhaps the highlight, nowhere more evident than in the low strings at the very beginning. The Festival Chorus also provided a magical moment, still seated, with their hushed first entry. Jansons showed himself to be every bit as adept as He Who Must Be Sought when it came to placement of offstage brass and other instruments, both outside the dress circle doors and outside the organ gallery. The soloists were good too, Gerhild Romberger suitably chilling in the urlicht.
However, the brass were not as polished as I have come to expect from this orchestra, nor as tight in ensemble terms. A bigger problem was the electric organ. Forgivable in the Barbican (since they neglected to include a real one in the building), it is much less so here since the Usher Hall has a very good one. This is presumably because German orchestras tune differently so if they tuned up normally they'd be out of tune with the organ (and I note that this team did the same thing for Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra back in 2007). I'll trust that it wasn't possible to retune the orchestra, but none of that makes an electric organ sound any good. I want to feel the physical force of the instrument (as we did when last this was played at the festival back in 2011) and I didn't.
But leaving that aside, Jansons and the Bavarians found lots of nice moments along the way, and the climaxes where for the most part powerfully delivered. Yet his interpretation lacked the inevitable momentum of the previous evening's Tchaikovsky and Mahler's score sprawled somewhat as a result and did not deliver the same emotional punch.
It has been a treat to have Jansons and the Bavarians here again. I hope it's fewer than six years before we see them at the festival again. Fortunately, this tweet from the incoming director gives some hope.