Symphony No.1 in B-flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Reviewed by: Ateş Orga
Reviewed: 5 June, 2019
Venue: Großer Saal, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Watching Mariss Jansons at the helm of the Wiener Philharmoniker is to be aware of a man born of another age and place, a musician with different values from the modern breed. In his early Oslo days, he had a certain passion yet even so was never all that given to excessive drama or histrionics. This concert – the third of three, taking in Vienna, Paris and Hamburg – was a cool affair, admirable in its analytical qualities and clinical detail. These days Jansons is very much the elder statesman, slow of walk, slightly stooped, with need of a chair every now and again, his eyes sunken and frail yet occasionally with flashes of the old screwed intensity we remember. A patrician-conductor, score before him (closely followed), his beat is economical and direct, emphasising understatement, guiding when necessary, baton sometimes at rest, a shaped hand, a watchful stance, doing the work.
One has heard more theatrical, filmic ‘Fantastics’, fiercer in emotional temperature. Jansons’s measured approach – fifty-nine minutes, without first-movement or ‘March’ repeats, compared with his Concertgebouw and Bavarian versions at around fifty-one – was akin to scenic painting, every texture, dynamic and colour pointed, every character on their spot, clarity and entries at a premium, beauty of tone, precision of articulation and ensemble to the fore. At times the perfection of it all suggested a recording studio, a succession of long blemish-free takes for the sampling – almost too good to be true, the Vienna players within their comfort zone, scarcely sweating. The religiosamente coda to the first movement, “the whole orchestra as soft possible” – one of the great Romantic strokes – pondered deep, double basses and violas to right of podium, violins to left. The valse of ‘Un bal’ was restrained, on the moderato side of allegro, Jansons favouring nostalgia to love’s intoxication. More drilled than menacing, essentially lean, the deliberated ‘March to the Scaffold’ aimed for sectionalised dissection. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ ran its course, if not always on the big stage. (The tolling bells, rather thin, put me in mind of Alpine village life come quiet Sunday mornings.)
Individual players shone – cor anglais, flute (splendidly shivering glissando in the Finale), oboe clarinet, horn, bassoon, heavy brass. Yet, whatever the impact within the (audience noisy) Elbphilharmonie, not all was convincing with this live stream. Strings, woodwind, brass and the pair of harps (placed left at the ten-o’clock position) were certainly prominent in the mix, the strings imposingly so. On the other hand, the percussion seemed oddly recessed, lacking physical kick in the climaxes. Whether or not the four ‘thunder’ drums at the end of the ‘Scène aux champs’ were offstage or in the upper spaces of the auditorium was unclear: the camera angle gave no clue beyond confirming the two principal players within the orchestra to be tacet. The over-microphoned oboe at the start of this movement – where placed wasn’t apparent – was a perverse misjudgement, negating Berlioz’s offstage intention: it’s marked to answer the cor anglais from the distance, not dominate.
Opting for marginally reduced forces (six basses), Jansons fashioned a reading of Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony as Elysian as Beethoven’s Fourth, the structural and tonal model of which was rarely that far away. The B-flat brass calls of the first movement (including an energised exposition repeat) rang out proudly, the chamber exchanges, the unanimity of attack in the tuttis, impressed – a lesson in telescopic observation and class delivery. The Larghetto was about long paragraphing and richly grained cello lines ebbing and flowing. Urbane dance underlined the third movement, not really a molto vivace Scherzo in this performance but, anticipating the Berlioz, elegantly beautiful in its remembered embrace, the drawn-out coda lingering towards the Mahlerian in sigh and reflection.