VPO/Jansons – 17 December

Ruy Blas, Op.95 – Overture
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 December, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It’s difficult to assess if the Vienna Philharmonic is quite the orchestra it once was. It can be, and was when Thielemann brought it to London a year ago, a very different group to the night before, with Jansons (as it happens), which was followed by a less than on-song appearance with Haitink. Maybe new-generation members and commercial pressures (the VPO is a far more ’open’ outfit now) have contributed to toning down some of its resource and character.

Mariss Jansons is among the most in-demand and celebrated of today’s conductors. There’s no doubting his musicianship, and it’s probably something to do with wavelengths … but a Schumann 2 without a suggestion of undercurrent rather robs the piece of, at least, one essential. This difficult-to-start work was exactly that, then the slow introduction was somewhat leaden, and the main allegro was of classical trimness. The Scherzo was too fast and tested the VPO’s violins beyond themselves, certainly in terms of unanimity. The slow movement, however, was exquisite – the tenderest of phrases, the loveliest of sound, the most circular of designs. Had Jansons set some tensions up in the first movement, he could have resolved them in finale.

Mendelssohn’s wonderful overture would have benefited from a little more deftness and affection, and Pictures was an on-off exhibition, a rendition that made-over the music rather than penetrating it. What really detracted though was Jansons’s emendating extra percussion to Ravel’s pristine orchestration. Jansons does have a point, although his touching-up really is an insult to Ravel (who may have already considered and rejected Jansons’s rather obvious additions), which should have been credited in the programme. Better, surely, for Jansons to use another orchestration (there are many) which better suits or, indeed, prepare one of his own. (N.B. Jansons’s excellent EMI Oslo Philharmonic recording is free of such editing.)

With the VPO, Jansons turned in a reading that alternated subtlety and strength, preciousness and gratuitous attack; one recalls the mellifluous saxophone playing in ’The Old Castle’ with pleasure and the forced ’The Great gate of Kiev’ rather less so – its lack of majesty failed to raise spirits.

For encores, the ’Pas de deux’ from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker whirled to climactic satisfaction in a wholly natural way, and the Johann Strauss II’s Persian March (Op.289) trod the boards in time-honoured fashion. This was a concert that didn’t stand out from the crowd – perhaps indicative of the VPO’s current standing and the London orchestras’ state of health. We’re very lucky. And there’s more to come in Classic International.

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