Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons in London – 1 [Smetana, Martinů & Brahms]

The Bartered Bride – Overture
Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 12 December, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Mariss Jansons. Photograph: BRBohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto is arguably one of the neglected masterpieces of the last century. This arresting work was composed in 1938 for Paul Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra, on the eve of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. As the composer explained, the work was a response to impending catastrophe, and a response of revolt rather than one of despair. Mariss Jansons adopted a rather deliberate tempo for the opening, and thus failed to achieve a suitably propulsive and impassioned effect. While the rest of the movement, too, was short on momentum, the central Largo was deeply felt, the piano (played by Ellen Corver) perhaps suggesting a soul lost in a bleak landscape, the strings powerfully echoing that mood. Again, the cross-rhythms of the finale did not have quite enough drive or fury; and despite offering ample evidence of the tonal richness of the Royal Concertgebouw’s playing, this performance, overall, did not do full justice to a wonderful piece.

Jansons embarked on the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony with real affection and a welcome lack of affectation. There was an abundance of great playing from the RCO, strings and woodwinds particularly distinguished. About halfway through the movement there was a drop in tension and, increasingly, the sense of a succession of incidents rather than of a coherent whole. The horns sonorously opened the Andante, and there was much fine playing thereafter. Very successful was the scherzo – truly giocoso. The finale was taken at a broad pace, and while there were a few laboured moments, Jansons guided his band to a notably forceful conclusion.

There were two encores: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 and the seventh of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances from the Opus 72 set. Both pieces could have done with more charm, a quality that was more seriously absent in the fleet and noisy performance of the Overture to “The Bartered Bride” with which the evening opened.

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