Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [‘New York’ Version, edited Nowak?]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 29 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Currently rated number six amongst the world’s great orchestras according the recent, highly eccentric, choice of the ‘Top 20’ as published in “Gramophone”, on this occasion the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra fully rated that ranking in a programme which played to its strengths. Mariss Jansons may not be one of the great interpreters in the mould of Rafael Kubelík or Eugen Jochum to name the two conductors most closely associated with this orchestra but under his tenure there has been no falling off in actual playing standards.
With a fairly full string complement the ‘Linz’ Symphony was traditional in the best sense, making few concessions to notions of ‘period practice’ other than hard sticks for the timpani and antiphonal violins. With such well-upholstered string-sound and legato phrasing even the drums sound did not cut through the texture, subsumed into the cultivated blend. Despite some tangy oboe-playing from Stefan Schilli, the initial impression was distinctly bland. However the performance came much more fully alive in the two middle movements both of which were strongly characterised, especially the earthy Minuet in which the Ländler was never far away. The Presto =finale was suitably fleet albeit Jansons allowed himself just sufficient elbow room to avoid any hint of its being gabbled.
Julian Haylock’s programme note described the version of the Bruckner used as follows: “The rarely heard first version of the Fourth Symphony appeared in 1874. Four years later Bruckner made a wholesale revision, completely replacing the third and fourth movements. He then overhauled the finale again between 1880 and 1881 and this is the version we hear played in this concert, which also incorporates further revisions Bruckner made between 1886 and 1888”. Presumably, then, some of these “further revisions” are the ones Bruckner made for Anton Seidl who gave the work its New York premiere as edited by Leopold Nowak.
Whatever one’s initial reservations about Jansons’s handling of the first movement – individual incident such as the moments of near-stasis were wonderfully observed but longer-term symphonic tensions did not always fully register – there could be absolutely none about the quality of the playing itself. The all-important first horn, Johannes Ritzkowsky, was gloriously secure throughout the work and seldom has one heard a viola section of such resonant depth, not just in the slow movement’s extended threnody but also at less obvious moments.
As in the Mozart, both central movements were especially successful, the long Andante quasi allegretto having a rare delicacy and polish from all sections whilst the ‘hunting’ scherzo was absolutely thrilling, the tempo slightly held back and precisely calculated to clarify the unequal rhythm, allowing the floodgates eventually to open to maximum effect. The horn quartet was impeccable here, only a single muffed note from the trumpet serving to remind us of human frailty. Above all in both works the Bavarian players were distinctive for their cohesive blend and balance and, in the Bruckner, for unforced amplitude to the sound which few orchestras bring to this music.