Philharmonia/Saraste Janine Jansen

Mozart
Violin Concerto in A, K219
Mahler
Symphony No.6

Janine Jansen (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 November, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Cartoon reacting to the first performance of Mahler's 6th symphony, 19/1/1907. Caption reads: Good gracious! Fancy leaving out the motor horn! Ah well, now I have an excuse for writing another symphony.Jukka-Pekka Saraste led, in one sense, a conventional Mahler 6 – well-judged tempos and with the middle movements played in the ‘wrong’ order; in another sense he led a distinctive account – with an obsessive attention to detail and with the restoration of the third, ‘superstitious’, hammer-blow that was also in the ‘right’ (if ‘wrong’) place.

Yet Saraste’s clinical, often-angular traversal, decidedly Modern rather than Romantic – which in itself is perfectly valid – palled as early as the first movement exposition (which, alas, was repeated to the same picking-out of motifs, to the same dominance of the side drum, whereas timpani were reticent, to a highlighting of bright sonorities, whereas the double basses and strings were submerged…). It’s one thing to have a technical and intellectual grasp of the music, as Saraste obviously does; it’s another to have a motivation as to why the music was written – and Saraste rarely brought this out. Of course, Mahler doesn’t have to be smothered in subjectivity or have a programme (real or imagined) writ large – conductors like Boulez and Gielen have given us great Mahler 6s based on purely musical values – but however well Saraste organised the music, he injected no reasoning behind it. Detailing was pristine, sometimes too much so – the emphasis placed on the harps became irksome – and also attenuated numerous fluffs in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s execution (which would have mattered less had the performance been more than ‘orchestral manoeuvres’).

But with the double basses huddled together on the right (Mahler would have expected them either on the left or at the back of the Hall projecting outwards, as well as antiphonal violins), there was not enough foundation and bright timbres were given more than their due. This was a wearing performance that failed to generate any internalised momentum (the vast finale dragged) and emotional impetus. The cowbell-coloured section of the first movement – the offstage percussion very well balanced – seemed an indulgence as the ‘hero’ really didn’t seem in search of paradise (or anything), and the coda was remarkably earthbound. It scarcely mattered that Saraste then played the scherzo, which really should be third (and it seems that every time Mahler conducted the Sixth he did so with the slow movement second and scherzo third, so the vexed question of the middle-movements’ running-order seems less controversial than it need be), yet when the Andante moderato did arrive, third-placed, and the cowbells are to the foreground, this seems to suggest that the first-movement’s exhilaration of arrival needs to be followed by the contemplation and paradise of the Andante, which was expressively coloured in this performance, and while ecstasy was at a premium, the picturesque stakes were raised. The finale, though, was uneventful, with even the hammer-blows failing to alter the course – and just another part of the orchestration.

The first-half Mozart wasn’t too period-conscious, and welcome, with Janine Jansen producing sweet tone and a sometimes-feisty manner, but she also brought a too-knowing approach that seemed contrived at times, with blandness and predictability setting in. The first movement warmed up (and got slightly faster) as it went along, while the Adagio (here more Andante) opened up touchingly at its mid-point; the finale was too consciously trying-to-be-charming, the ‘Turkish’ episode underplayed, with Jansen’s penultimate cadenza more Paganini than ‘in-keeping’. The Philharmonia and Saraste accompanied with courtesy.



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