Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons at Barbican Hall (1) – Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony – Frank Peter Zimmermann plays K216

Violin Concerto in G, K216
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [edition not stated]

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 April, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Frank Peter Zimmermann. Photograph: Klaus RudolphEven though the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is now a frequent flyer to London, the 125-year-old ensemble’s mystique still precedes it, defined by the alchemy at work between these wonderful players and their current chief conductor (only the sixth since 1888). The force of nature that Mariss Jansons has embodied in some incandescent performances, especially of Mahler, has mellowed, but he still radiates the sort of charismatic connection that makes music leap off the page. This was obvious in the Mozart that opened the first of the three concerts in the RCO’s Barbican Centre residency, uncompromisingly built around three Bruckner Symphonies.

Slimmed down to elegant, classical size and with deferential nods to period manners, the RCO flickered easily through the music’s urbane, coquettish charm, with stylish wind solos bubbling to the surface. Suggestion and implication held their course despite Frank Peter Zimmermann’s rather more generic role as soloist, pleasantly glossy and ingratiating but only fitfully alert to the wealth of character and wit nudging and coaxing him from the accompaniment. He got nearest to a genuine exchange in the gemütlich long lines of the slow movement, but, even with Jansons creating abundant potential for nuance and personality, Zimmermann was happier ploughing his own furrow.

Mariss Jansons. Photograph: Royal Concertgebouw OrchestraBruckner is in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s DNA, and two of its principal conductors (Eduard van Beinum and Bernard Haitink) have played a vital role in establishing the Symphonies in the repertoire; from a Dutch perspective, so too Eugen Jochum. Jansons, without the need for liberating much in the way of virtuoso orchestral writing, has notably given these works a transparency and structural give-and-take, an approach especially well-suited to the ‘Romantic’ Fourth, psychologically the most relaxed of the mature Symphonies (if revised more than once, so rather thoughtless not to be advised of which edition was being used beyond “(1874-8; 1880)”, which covers more than one version). Even so, the opening – a cruelly exposed challenge for any orchestra – had here to work hard to evoke the essential mood of misty magic, not helped by an unfortunate crack in the horn-call nor by the Barbican Hall’s close acoustic, which does little to enable a broad sonic panorama.

Jansons, though, went on to demonstrate his inimitable sympathy with the flow of the music’s narrative, so that the various themes spoke with an almost palpable sense of character. He also kept his monumentalist powder dry until the finale, a tact that paid dividends in the second-movement Andante, a melancholy, half-lit tone poem perfectly judged in terms of scale and palette. It complemented the charm of the scherzo’s cod-medievalism, with a trio positively brimming with bucolic Schubertian good cheer. Jansons’s biggest success, though, was with the last movement, which didn’t lapse into the large-scale lack of direction that often bedevils it. Jansons’s mobility and the orchestra’s powerful responsiveness – the brass playing was impressively nimble and sonorous – kept faith with Bruckner’s elusive goal. The coda may not have achieved obliterating, transcendent lift-off – the Fourth is not that kind of Symphony – but there was no doubting a satisfyingly grounded sense of arrival.

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