RCO/Jansons – 2

Le Carnaval romain, Op.9 – Overture
La mer
Folk Songs
La valse

Elina Garanča (mezzo soprano)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 February, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s second London concert in this current visit, was a curious (afternoon) affair, running to just six minutes over one hour (according to the rather unnecessary printed timings in the programme) and comprising an eclectic mixture of works. Sadly, given the generally superlative quality of the playing, there were some empty seats, a reflection of the sheer choice of music-making London enjoys.

The opening fairly crackled with electricity and included a distinctive cor anglais solo from Ruth Visser, very different in its fatter sound to what we normally hear in London. Throughout, Jansons’s pin-point control of dynamics enabled much frequently-lost woodwind detail to register. However, some of the brass playing was less than immaculate.

Better was to follow in La mer, designated ‘three symphonic sketches’ by the composer, a work which the orchestra played, not altogether successfully, on one of its previous Barbican visits, with Haitink. Under Jansons it emerged resplendent, more Mediterranean than North Sea (or Baltic), but none the worse for that. In a reading of such overt commitment, it is hard to imagine Debussy conceiving a substantial portion of the work in a boarding house in Eastbourne. Two outstanding features were its sustained momentum (even in ‘Jeux de vagues’, taken initially at a fairly relaxed tempo) and the sheer finesse of the orchestral response (symptomatic of this, the remarkably subtle blend of oboe and solo cello and the security of the sustained violins in ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’).

Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs” is a diverse concatenation of 11 songs written for his wife, the inimitable Cathy Berberian, and it sat oddly with the remainder of the programme. The songs are drawn from USA (Kentucky), Armenia (Berberian was of Armenian origin), France, Sicily, Italy, Sardinia, the Auvergne and Azerbaijan, and are sung in the original languages and dialects. Therein lies the rub. Berberian had a rare facility with words, whatever the language, which few other singers can match.

Towering above a seemingly diminutive Jansons, the statuesque Elina Garanča, a finalist in the BBC’s “Cardiff Singer of the World” in 2001, delivered a delightfully engaging account. The Armenian song ‘Loosin yelav’ (The Moon has risen over the hill) really speaks to the heart – but ideally this music demands a more intimate acoustic for the words to register fully. Also, the orchestra frequently required a lighter touch, although there were some memorable individual contributions.

Ravel’s ‘choreographic poem’ La valse received a thrusting and forward-moving reading, marvellously played, Alexei Ogrintchouk’s crucial oboe solos giving particular pleasure. But more languor and restraint would have been welcome. If La valse represents an “apotheosis of the waltz” with the old pre-First World War order disappearing into “a fantastic and fateful whirlpool” (Ravel’s own descriptions of the work), in this performance the final death-throes and convulsions peaked slightly too early if presenting a truly orgasmic experience.

There were two encores, the ‘Intermezzo’ from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana”, and more Berlioz, the ‘Hungarian March’ from “La Damnation de Faust”.

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