RCO/Jansons – 2

Symphony No.94 in G (Surprise)
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 29 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

I first heard the Concertgebouw Orchestra live when Bernard Haitink conducted his farewell concert of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The playing was stunning, so too the individuality of sound in the Concertgebouw’s perfect acoustic; I was interested to hear how this Rolls Royce of orchestras would adapt to the Barbican Hall’s still-inadequate one.

In the Haydn Jansons used a reduced string band, but there were still occasional balance problems in forte passages in which the woodwinds were almost inaudible. Jansons had failed to address the ill-defined nature of the Hall’s middle range and not asked for more volume and attack from the wind section. Apart from this caveat the performance was a joy. The slow introduction and Allegro skipped along with immensely civilised yet characterful playing, not least beautifully defined, yet sweet, string tone – I particularly liked the legato slur in the strings prior to each appearance of the second subject. Jansons chose a flowing but not over-fast tempo for the celebrated second movement where the opening section was sotto voce and the ff chord a whip crack; the minuet had a real sense of swing and attack, and if the finale would have enjoyed a slightly faster tempo there was superb phrasing plus rhythmic swing, and ensemble in the coda was immaculate – Indeed the whole performance breathed an air of urbane discourse.

Ein Heldenleben has always been a Concertgebouw Orchestra party-piece and two of the work’s greatest conductors, Mengelberg and Haitink, were principal conductors of the orchestra. The striving motif that represents Strauss was powerfully and impulsively played with a weight and purity of string tone (qualities not heard too often in London) – the violins were superlatively refined above the stave – and yet the woodwinds were still audible individually and corporately. In the sections portraying the critics the woodwinds characterised superbly with the Till Eulenspiegel elements vividly to the fore, and the use of slight variations in tone and speed ensured that the hero’s depressive episode was never allowed to stagnate or become maudlin. When we are introduced to the future Frau Strauss, the first violin (either Vesko Eschkenazy or Alexander Kerr) was sparing in his use of vibrato if not portamento and the supporting bed of string sound was exceptional at all from p to ppp.

The Battle then brought massive weight of brass tone and almost deafening sustained fffplaying. And in the long elegiac epilogue there was a sense of calm and resignation. So a great performance? Well, no. Despite the glory of the playing, I wanted just a bit more characterisation, more sense of individuality and the epilogue’s ‘big tune’, when it finally appeared, lacked true spirituality, true innigkeit.

There were two encores, by Richard Strauss and Boccherini. The latter’s familiar Minuet was given a performance in which the volume never rose above piano; at one point the violins sank to a level where they were just audible, yet every note was exact in intonation and steadiness. Great orchestral playing.

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