Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons in New York (1) – Mahler 1 – Leonidas Kavakos plays Bartók

Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.1

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 13 February, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Bartók’s old friend Zoltán Székely was the commissioner of his Second Violin Concerto. He performed the premiere with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg in 1939. The piece was something of a compromise, Székely requesting a traditional three-movement concerto and Bartók desiring a set of variations. The Concerto’s second movement features the variations, and Bartók published two versions of the work’s ending, the original featuring the orchestra on its own and then one including the soloist, as presented here.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasThe performance was also a compromise, Leonidas Kavakos minimizing temperamental fluctuations in favor of phrases of long arcs, versus Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra concocting gems of color underneath the solo violin and large waves of emotion in tutti sections. Although the two merged together for a satisfying performance, the orchestra’s playing was far more appealing. Kavakos drew consistently bright tone from his 1724 ‘Abergavenny’ Stradivarius and was also pleasingly sweet in the highest register. He exaggerated the frequent tempo changes, and the faster moments were exciting in their driving force, but slower sections could be studiously dull. His intonation was impeccable in the first-movement cadenza’s quarter-tone passages. His range of phrasing was more diverse in the finale and allowed his playing to become more passionate and raw. However, the orchestra’s raunchy accompaniment brought much needed vitality throughout the work. Kavakos was more endearing in his encore, the ‘Allemanda’ from Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No.4, allowing intensity to permeate the performance in even the quietest sections and alive to exuberant drama.

Mariss Jansons. Photograph: BRJansons led the RCO in a captivating performance of Mahler’s First Symphony that was faithful to the composer’s original tone-poem narrative, Mahler subsequently suppressing the movements’ titles. He took the first one, originally titled ‘Spring Without End’, at a brisk and sprightly tempo, never losing its undercurrent of blossoming excitement. The balance between sections was exquisite and the woodwinds’ crisp articulation of the descending pattern of fourths was suitably bird-like. Jansons kept the tempo stately and free of rubato in the following ‘Under Full Sail’ scherzo. Although the sentimentality was rigidly controlled, dynamics and mood-changes were expansive. The strings in particular were phenomenal in their abrupt shifts from force to subservience. Mahler acknowledged that the ‘Funeral March’ movement was inspired by images of various animals and a Bohemian band accompanying a hunter’s coffin to its grave. Jansons captured this farcical nature well. Foreboding was finally unleashed in the stormy finale (‘From Inferno to Paradise’). The violins were thrilling in their angry exclamations, a true depiction of a raging hellfire. In the subsequent section, Jansons understated the violins’ serene melody and highlighted the syncopated horn accompaniment, thus propelling the movement forward towards the divine. There was a well-paced build up to the triumphant conclusion, when the RCO displayed unprecedented dynamic force.

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