Bavarian Radio SO/Jansons in New York – Haydn & Beethoven

Symphony No.88 in G
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Ricarda Merbeth (soprano)
Michelle Breedt (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Schade (tenor)
Michael Volle (baritone)

Westminster Symphonic Choir

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 14 March, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Mariss JansonsThe focal point and highlight of this concert, the second of three in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Mariss Jansons, was, of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Jansons programmed Haydn’s Symphony 88 to precede it, and this proved an apt choice; the earlier work is a stylistically compatible forerunner of the later one.

Using modest string forces for the Haydn (with violinists seated antiphonally, as they were all evening), Jansons coaxed a rather large sound from his players at times, and a more gentle and supple sound at others, sometimes using incisive dynamic shifts to add colour to the phrasing. Throughout the symphony, attacks were pointed, as were cut-offs, and tempos ranged, for the most part, from moderate to brisk. Only the first movement introduction and the third movement Trio felt at all stodgy. In the latter case, Jansons’s slowing of the tempo underscored Haydn’s unusual harmonic effect, in which bassoons and violas drone like bagpipes beneath the melody on the violins and flute. Melodic lines were well shaped throughout the work, with careful attention paid to detail. The finale’s genial rondo theme brought the symphony to a close with stunning rapidity.

The audience just back from the interval could feel immediately from the mysterious atmosphere generated as the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth built to a huge crescendo, that this performance would be charged with electricity. Throughout the performance, Jansons evoked precise playing from his orchestra, which responded perfectly to his direction with spiked attacks and cut-offs and subtle dynamic changes. The clear, transparent articulation of each instrumental line brought out every detail of the score. The result was a memorable performance of this great work.

In the opening movement, Beethoven does a great deal with relatively little underlying thematic material, foregoing an exposition repeat (although he tricks the listener into anticipating one), essentially doubling the development section, and then adding a lengthy coda. Jansons kept the music driving forward, with the fugal portion of the development and the combination of horn and woodwinds in the coda especially standing out – along with the timpani, which was excellently played throughout.

In the ensuing scherzo, Jansons never permitted moments of “Sturm und Drang“ to stray far from the prevailing mood of jocularity, which the explosive timpani outbursts seemed to emphasise. The rollicking bassoon and upsweeping violas and cellos at the outset of the trio contrasted nicely with the scherzo as did horn and oboe solos that followed. In the slow movement, Beethoven outdid himself, offering not one but two main themes, each as lovely as the other, and then intertwined and embellished them with inventive variations. From Jansons, the delicate beauty of this music flowed naturally, without abandoning Beethoven’s metronome markings in favour of either a Furtwänglerian crawl or a rushed traversal, but also without a great deal of distinction between the tempos marked for the two themes, an oasis of tranquillity of deep emotional introspection. The vocalists seated in front of the orchestra whilst waiting to sing in the fourth movement were visibly caught up in the music.

The shocking opening of the finale followed immediately, breaking the calm with which the Adagio ended and introducing a dialogue in which the double basses rejected the attempts by the rest of the orchestra to return to the themes of the first three movements. This was well managed by Jansons and the orchestra, with the entire double bass section shining both in recitative (foreshadowing the baritone’s entry) and in their first statement of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, the low strings taking up the theme, with a marvellously played bassoon solo as counterpoint and the violins finally joining in, and then, as the full orchestra played the theme with prominent trumpets and timpani, it sounded regal. Beethoven then shocks us, again, by returning to the raucous passage with which the movement began, followed by a recitative by the bass soloist.

For the “Choral” portion of the fourth movement, the orchestra was joined by a superb quartet of soloists who all have extensive performing experience, but only Michael Schade, who is Canadian, appears at all regularly in New York.

Michael Volle. ©Anne KirchbachMichael Volle’s opening solo was forceful and crystal-clear, as was Schade’s in the ‘Turkish’ section. When singing in duet, trio or quartet, the vocalists struck a fine balance, their voices blending together perfectly whilst projecting each line with utter clarity, firmness of pitch, and sufficient volume to be heard distinctly, even during orchestral and choral passages. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, some 120 voices strong, also performed brilliantly, responding seamlessly to Jansons’s direction. One never had the feeling that the choristers were just throwing up a wall of sound; they were unfailingly musical as well as verbally articulate, whether singing pianissimo or double-forte or digging into the numerous sforzando attacks.

From the baritone solo to the symphony’s conclusion, Beethoven created what amounts to a cantata permeated by the poetic and musical theme of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”. Jansons and the performers ably met the challenge of these stylistic shifts without allowing the work’s common threads to unravel. Above all, these were beautiful voices that made pleasing sounds, especially in the soloists’ final, nearly unaccompanied, quartet just before the orchestra and chorus drove toward the symphony’s exciting conclusion.

It is interesting that Jansons, who had recognized cellist Sebastian Klinger and oboist Ramón Ortega Quero for their contributions to the Haydn symphony, chose not to single out individuals or sections in the Beethoven. This seemed quite appropriate, however, as the orchestra’s playing was uniformly excellent and deserving – along with the chorus and soloists – of the ten-minute ovation.

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