Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
Janine Jansen (violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 16 February, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Janine Jansen has been the recipient of a strong public-relations and marketing push by both Decca Records and her US management. She is renowned as being assured, with secure technical finesse, and excellent intonation; everything else about her performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto went the wrong way. Jansen indulged in a panoply of technically impressive but interpretative technical gimmicks that are too fashionable among many of the new generation of violinists – from lingering over aggressively accented notes on the downbeat to the abrupt application of too-wide, too-fast vibrato, to the brusque, blunt shifts from over urgency to placid beauty – which had the effect of deconstructing Sibelius’s magnificent musical architecture into an uneven succession of aural bricks.
The second movement in particular suffered – Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra mediated the varying moods quite well, but Jansen subverted the flow of the movement and its larger sections with filleted phrasing. The finale was taken at a cautious tempo, but Jansen’s playing was most convincing in this movement as she juggled craggy impetuousness, dance-like grace, and the propulsive sweep of the scalar passages.
There were also some serious balance issues, Jansen’s sound was thin and underpowered in the first two movements, but, finally, it gained a little bit of body: much of the upper-range music in the first two movements was being played on the lower strings – a practice that works well in front of the microphone, but not necessarily in Carnegie Hall. For his part, Jansons was reining in the forte and fortissimo material, but the orchestra still swamped Jansen, though soloist and orchestra often conjured a majestic and beautiful sound, whilst overshadowing the music’s innate astringency and intensity.
Jansen offered a rarity for an encore: the third movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins (Opus 56), which she played with the Concertgebouw’s concertmaster Vesko Eschkenazy. It was unexpectedly breathtaking not only in its beauty but its utterly convincing evocation of Prokofiev’s potent, late-period melodic beauty.
Mariss Jansons has had Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in his repertoire for a long time, and has recorded it twice (with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Chandos and Saint Petersburg Philharmonic on EMI). The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is no stranger to this work; it made a superb recording in the early digital era under Vladimir Ashkenazy, and an air-check under Kyril Kondrashin was released officially in the Anthology of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra series on RCOLive. Jansons has refined his approach to this work, paring down the hard edge and slight exaggerations evident in his earlier recordings.
In the first movement, Jansons eschewed sentiment in favour of propulsive, almost theatrical sweep; the strings generated plenty of unexaggerated intensity, and the beautiful wind-playing sacrificed nothing in the way of forward momentum. Jansons put just the right measure of jauntiness in the main theme of the scherzo, and effectively-shimmering string-sound in the second theme. The Adagio’s plaintive, cantabile clarinet melody was played exquisitely by Jacques Meertens, as were the wind countermelodies in the movement’s coda by the amazing first-chair players. But, most notable, was the steady, unflagging momentum of the entire movement, which was not overshadowed by the satisfying climax.
The finale was taken at a measured pace (disappointingly, Jansons made some cuts) but conductor and orchestra delivered a bounteous harvest of virtuoso ‘goosebump’ moments, played with stunning precision, and just the right balance of jocularity and fervency, though the many accrued orchestration enhancements that Jansons favours are questionable – the timpani thwack on the final note of the first movement, the doubling of the ‘big tune’ by the trumpet at the climax of the third movement, and the gratuitous cymbal crash before the restatement of the second theme in the finale – but, overall, this was the most convincing performance of the Russian master’s Second Symphony I have yet heard in the concert hall.
The orchestra offered as an encore Sibelius’s Valse triste. Were the musicians aware that Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic had performed the same work a few days earlier? The difference was night and day: Jansons chose more judicious tempos, the strings played with greater warmth, and the contrasting middle section seemed to rise from the mist, dance, and disappear back into a figurative foggy forest of birch trees.