Royal Concertgebouw in New York

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

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons


Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 15 February, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by its Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons, performed two concerts at Carnegie Hall on 14-15 February, the first evening being Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad).

For the Haydn, Jansons used an ensemble of about 40 players, seating the first and second violin sections antiphonally; yet this was by no means an ‘early-music’ performance. Jansons took full advantage of the rich sonorities of modern instruments without sacrificing the symphony’s delicacy. The strings were velvety in the Adagio introductory section, and in the frolicking Vivace assai slowed occasionally as if sighing or catching their breath. The woodwinds maintained an excellent balance with the strings.

The eponymous surprise was carried out deftly, without undue exaggeration. As the Andante unfolded, Jansons let the alternation of gentle woodwind and string passages with loud tutti build up drama before bringing the movement to its tranquil conclusion. The Menuet contrasted nicely with the delicate Trio, the contrapuntal passages in the strings being particularly well played and, in the finale, Jansons took us on an impulsive joyride capped by a dramatic and well-played coda.

For Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Jansons grouped the violins together for music he has an obvious affection for (and which opened his tenure in September 2004 and was recorded); he brought an overall conception that carried through the widely varying sections. In the opening section, the cellos, sometimes joined by the double basses, projected a huge, pulsating sound as they stated the theme of the Hero (usually thought to be Strauss himself); in the second section, depicting the Hero’s enemies (music critics!), each instrument in the woodwinds came through with great clarity. Concertmaster Vesko Eschkenazy played the third section’s love theme very ably, producing a sometimes strident, but mostly tender, sound that alternated with various instrumental combinations, with the harps, horns and oboes standing out as particularly excellent.

The martial fourth section, the Hero’s Deeds of War, introduced by offstage trumpets, showed off the orchestra’s percussion and expanded brass sections to great advantage, producing a resonant sound that shook the Hall. Over persistent drumbeats – from bass, tenor and snare drums as well as timpani – the trumpets, trombones and tubas sound the battle cry as the themes of the Hero and his beloved soar above the conflict, with the Hero’s theme on the lower strings and horns eventually emerging triumphant.

The genial fifth Section, the Hero’s Works of Peace, is largely a potpourri of quotations – at least 30 of them – from Strauss’s earlier works. The concluding section, with its themes of retirement and fulfilment, brought the work to a restful yet magisterial close.

The marriage of this great orchestra with Carnegie Hall and its fabled acoustics was most felicitous. Indeed, the magnificence with which the sustained closing chord of Heldenleben resonated in the Hall was perhaps the most glorious sound that I have heard in my many years of concert-going at Carnegie! If only the lout who overeagerly shouted out the first ‘bravo’ had waited just a few seconds to allow the music to fade away in our minds as well as in our ears…

As an encore, Jansons led the orchestra in a stirring performance of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

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