RCO/Jansons – 1

Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

We’ve been blessed with visits by Amsterdam’s finest over the last seven months – twice to the Barbican in June, twice at the Proms, and now a swift return to the Barbican with the promise of more. While I was surprised that the next concerts – sometime during the 06-07 “Great Performers” series – weren’t trailed (I’m one for getting things into my diary as early as possible) – I am delighted to report that this first of two concerts proved the partnership between the orchestra and its still relatively new chief conductor (just 16 months in) is, already, one of the world’s greatest.

I sometimes feel a sense of déjà vu with Mariss Jansons’s programmes. Although he is one of the few Russian conductors who have made his name not necessarily on Russian repertoire, you tend to get no-soloist programmes and symphonies shackled together. This duo of concerts relied on that formula for the second (Haydn 94 and Ein Heldenleben), but the first concentrated on one work: Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.

Incredibly, Jansons’s EMI recording of Shostakovich 7, with the Leningrad Philharmonic (yes, it was that long ago) was released in 1988, and I’ve not seen him conduct Shostakovich for a long while. There was no sense of disappointment. Not quite as fleet as his recording (a swift 68 minutes, compared – at its most extreme – to Bernstein’s 85 minutes, with the Chicago Symphony), this would have easily fitted on to a single disc, and I do hope that RCO Live will be issuing a version, leaving aside contractual obligations to EMI who is recording Jansons in a complete cycle.

One distinct difference between recording and live performance was Jansons’s stage-plan – traditional at the Barbican, cellos and basses on his right, while the recording trumpets the fact that the Leningrad band sit in (what was then, at least) its traditional position – cellos to Jansons’s left, next to the first violins, and double basses behind them. (Curiously this would be the slimmed-down layout for the Haydn the following matinee, but the Strauss reverted to west-European late 20th-century arrangement.)

Jansons’s view hasn’t seriously changed in the two decades since the recording, even if he is now a little more indulgent. He finds amazing detail in the score, conscious of individual instruments’ timbres and strong on the music’s inherent architecture. This wasn’t a performance to picture the invasion of the Nazi army (or indeed Stalinist oppression) in the first movement, but rather it played the score as red-blooded music, not political propaganda. Also Jansons is expert enough not to unbalance the work by overloading the first movement at the expense of the remaining three movements. Here what most impressed was the continued quality of those three remaining movements, especially Jansons’s steady but powerful building of the final release, the massive brass chorale achieving a tangible sense of relief and catharsis which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

Crowding the platform – still with principal players to spare for the second concert – the Concertgebouw Orchestra was in stunning form; secure and full-bodied in sound, each section excelling and richly deserving a separate call from Jansons at the end. He might not be as structurally as analytical as Haitink in this repertoire, but his ear for what I take to be an authentic Shostakovich voice (without politicising it as Rostropovich does, dripping with non-musical baggage), is precise and overwhelming in itself.

Suffice to say, news is eagerly awaited from the Barbican about the RCO and Jansons’s next visit.

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