Bavarian Radio SO/Jansons – 2 February

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 February, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert offered London its first glimpse of the Bavarian Radio Symphony under its charismatic new chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. Given Munich’s relative proximity, compared with other major orchestras, the BRSO has not been the most frequent of visitors to London. Let’s hope that this is about to change. The orchestra is a magnificent instrument. Along with Staatskapelle Dresden, it is now the most echt-Deutsch of German orchestras with rich strings and characteristically blended brass (whereas post-Abbado the Berlin Phil now sounds more international). If orchestras were cars, the BRSO would be a top-range BMW, definitely vorsprung durch technik.

The concert opened with a mighty, and mightily finely played, Beethoven 5. Whether one liked it or not is another matter, but there was no gainsaying the quality. If one responded to Karajan in this music in the ’60s and ’70s, then this would have been just the ticket – superbly played and consistently delivered mit Höchste Kraft (with highest force). Speeds were swift, interpretative decisions were unobjectionable, nothing was fussed over, and great care was taken over details (for example the timpani part in the very final bar).

To these ears though, at least after the first movement, which responded remarkably well to this treatment, it all sounded curiously old-fashioned, almost like a parody of the best of late-nineteenth-century performance-practice, with textures consistently thickened – the superb violas and cellos were by no means piano e dolce as marked at the start of the Andante, more a throbbing mezzo-forte – so that by the opening of the finale one felt bludgeoned rather than uplifted, the exultation manufactured.

Reservations apart, there were many excellent things along the way, notably a fine clarinet and bassoon in the slow movement, and resonantly characterful cellos and basses in the Trio. However, having heard Jansons conduct a Pittsburgh Beethoven Second, and now this 5th, one feels this music is not in his bloodstream.

Rather more so is the Fantastique. After some languid Reveries, Jansons’s was a high voltage performance, rather similar in contour to Maazel’s most recent London performance, with the Philharmonia – the music was given a virtuoso workout, speeds generally on the fast side, markedly too much so in the pastoral slow movement and the March to the Scaffold, the former lacking deep inner loneliness and the latter’s menace diminished.

Two notable aspects were the spatial effects and the orchestral layout. Two beautiful lady harpists were seated at the front of the stage either side of the conductor; this blocked their view of each other which did not help ensemble, but did make for interesting antiphony and prominence. Less apt, at the close of the slow movement, were the off-stage, left and right timpani: Berlioz’s effect of thunder works better en masse. In the Witches Sabbath – for no perceptible reason – the rather unpleasant-sounding bell was placed behind the majority of the audience, which did not help synchronisation either.

More fundamentally, the traditionally German seating of the orchestra with the horns embedded in the strings made for a fine blend which would have served Brahms well. But Berlioz’s soundworld depends on the most precisely judged juxtaposition of timbres. In this performance, stupendous though much of the actual playing was, too often the sound melded together so that detail got submerged.

As encores, a well-manicured Boccherini Minuet, and Berlioz’s Hungarian March, which was rather devoid of menacing schwung. Rather than the Boccherini, if you are determined to show off your orchestra’s silky string sound, then why not Dance of the Sylphs?

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