Saturday, 12 May 2012

Concertgebouw/Jansons - Strauss, 12 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30
Metamorphosen
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)


I fear that I am about to be grossly unfair, so shall at least try to explain why I am being unfair, or at least grumpy. By all but the most exalted standards, and I suspect that many would say even by exalted standards, this was a fine concert, featuring one of the world’s greatest orchestras and one of the world’s most esteemed living conductors in music which they performed very well indeed. Had this been a run-of-the-mill orchestra, directed by a Kapellmeister-ish sort, I should doubtless have rushed for superlatives. However, that was not who was performing, and I felt just a little disappointed, at least for two of the three items.

Also sprach Zarathustra does not seem to be performed as often as one might expect. I am not entirely sure why. Though I am far from considering it to be Strauss’s finest symphonic poem – if pushed, I should probably opt for Tod und Verklärung – I should have expected it, for a variety of reasons, some good, some less so, to be popular with audiences. Maybe it is, and is less popular with conductors; it is certainly a very difficult work to bring off convincingly. There was nothing really for which I could fault the Concertgebouw Orchestra; its cultivated yet sumptuous sound suits Strauss very well, even if I might long for something a little more closer to Dresden or Vienna. And the feeble organ is a general Barbican curse. (Even for musical obsessives, there would surely be many more pressing cases concerning which one might wish to purloin funds-cum-compensation from the Corporation of London. But it would be a nice gesture all the same, were the hall to be granted a decent example of the King of Instruments instead of having to rely upon a terrible little electronic thing.) However, I did not feel that Mariss Jansons really succeeding in welding the sections into a convincing whole, symphonic or otherwise. Rudolf Kempe, as so often, is a splendid model in that respect. There was little sense either of belief or of irony; one can opt for one or the other, perhaps even both, but I am not sure that ‘neither’ is a compelling option. There was, of course, much to enjoy, and I appreciated the subtlety of programming, the music for solo strings cleverly anticipating the second half’s Metamorphosen. Leader Vesko Eschkenazy’s rendition of the solo violin part was exemplary. And yet, as I tend to do in all but the best performances, I found that the work somewhat outstayed its welcome.

The problem, or rather reservation, I had with Metamorphosen, was rather different. Jansons opted not to conduct it at all. The Concertgebouw strings are wonderful musicians, of course, and do not need someone to beat time. It is, moreover, an interesting idea to assess this work in chamber music terms. There were certainly gains. No one could doubt that they were listening to each other; nor could anyone surely have missed the clarity with which Strauss’s counterpoint was projected. However, the performance ultimately fell between two stools. At times, it was directed from the first violin by Eschkenazy. The passages he directed tended, almost but not quite paradoxically, to sound more ‘conducted’, slightly squarer of rhythm, than if there had been an expert conductor on the podium. On the other hand, there were times when the chamber approach led rise to a slight interpretative anonymity, when I at least longed for more of an ‘idea’ to the performance. Perhaps the idea was to treat this as ‘absolute’ music, to steer clear of difficult wartime associations. I am sure it was not intentionally evasive, but by the same token, I am unsure that it is the best idea for a performance of Metamorphosen. It felt a little like a typical performance of the ‘Indian summer’ Duo concertante, which needs an inspired performance to avert suspicion of note-spinning. Anger and other passion were somewhat lacking, and the Eroica quotation went for surprisingly little. It was nevertheless a pity to have a respectable performance besmirched by some attention-seeking idiot shouting ‘Bravo’ as the final chord still resonated. (He had done the same at the end of Also sprach Zarathustra too, presumably desperate to have his voice heard before applause began.)

The Rosenkavalier suite is a dreadful thing, of course, whoever concocted it. (So, incidentally, is Strauss’s own Symphonic Fantasy on ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’; one desperately wants it to work, but it never does.) Still, I am sure if I were a conductor I should not be able to resist programming it, and as an audience member I certainly cannot bring myself to avoid listening to it. Here Jansons and the Concertgebouw truly struck gold, or perhaps better, silver. No one plays this music quite like the Viennese, but this was a perfectly valid different tone, cultivated, precise, and warm yet never indulgent. The woodwind section was utterly outstanding, its fluttering in the Overture perhaps the best I have ever heard, whether in terms of the suite or the opera. Alexei Ogrintchouk may have been first amongst equals when it came to his oboe solos, but first he certainly was. Jansons loved the music without smothering it, not only alert to its changing temperament but almost convincing in some of the (non-)transitions. Christian Thielemann doubtless seduces more in this music, but Jansons has its measure as well as anyone else. Even this curmudgeon came away from the Barbican joyfully singing to himself those gorgeous waltz tunes.





15 comments:

Alan Trench said...

I'm not sure whether the conductorless Metamorphosen was deliberate (Gavin Plumley in his review suggests it may not have been). But it seemed to me under-whelming too, largely because it relished the sound-world Strauss creates, but missed the sense of anguish and despair at the loss of a whole culture that I find in the work. Perhaps I read too much into it, in seeing it as the work of a supremely cultured man witnessing the destruction of his culture, aware of his own complicity in that, and using his art to express that view; but there is certainly a deep grief and a measure of neurosis in it. That seemed missing in the Concertegbouw's rendering.

Mark Berry said...

I simply don't know. In the absence of any announcement, I assumed that it was deliberate, though perhaps Gavin knows otherwise. I don't think you read too much into the work at all; that anguish turns it into a true masterpiece for me. I don't think I have ever heard a performance, beautifully played as it was, in which so little appeared to be at stake. Imagine a Beethoven Ninth played like that...

Tricia Markham said...

Mariss Jansons looked very unwell prior to the interval and I don’t feel his absence was planned. I think we are fortunate he returned at all, as he also looked ill and breathless at the end. Many in the audience were very concerned about him. Personally, I would rather he had put his welfare first, before our enjoyment.

Alan Trench said...

I did once hear an even worse (heartless)performance: Mahler 6, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa, at the Festival Hall in the mid-90s. Impeccably played, but with no sense of any drama or meaning whatever. It was the first time I'd heard the BSO or Ozawa live, and a huge disappointment it was too.

As for Tricia Markham's comment: I entirely agree. We all know how vulnerable his health is.

Mark Berry said...

Tricia, thank you for pointing that out. My seat was nowhere near the stage, indeed towards the very back of the hall, so it would have been impossible for me to have noted what you and others in the audience did. I wonder whether that was why the second half began so late, long after we had been called back in after the interval, and long after many of the players had assembled on stage. It would make sense if people had been trying to work out what to do.

Anonymous said...

In Amsterdam last Friday Jansons did conduct the Metamorphosen as well, so...

By the way: you will be able to hear the same Concertgebouw-programme on your computer, without the nuisance of the Barbican acoustics. As with most other Amsterdam RCO performances since 2010, you can listen to them by clicking on http://www.radio4.nl/pip-home/zondagmiddagconcert/.
Here you find all the so called Zondagmiddagconcerten (Sunday afternoon concerts), which usually are performances by RCO. Click on the date and you will be able to listen in.
Note: click on Sundays only, the concert of this Sunday, which was in fact the concert of last Friday will be available on the site from tomorrow or Tuesday onwards)

Anonymous said...

.. if you want to listen back any particular programme via the link above, note that all concerts start at 14h15, i.e. after 15 minutes. This means if you don't want to listen to the introduction, you need to forward the programme about 15 mins.

E said...

Yes, it was certainly noticeable from where I was sitting in the stalls.. he wasn't looking well at all, particularly when taking the applause after the first half. In fact, the leader of the orchestra looked slightly worried as Jansons walked off. He also cancelled an event today at St Luke's, due to sickness.

I, for one, didn't feel as critical towards their playing of Metamorphosen. As you suggest, this was accomplished playing; for me it started rather 'ordinarily', but progressively built in level of grief and anguish. I certainly felt the Eroica quotation at the end. Perhaps not an unforgettable performance, but it certainly didn't leave me underwhelmed.

As I left the Barbican, I was wondering what the effect would have been of switching the order of the Rosenkavalier Suite and Metamorphosen.

Tricia Markham said...

E, I agree. The leader of the orchestra appeared to ask Mariss Jansons if he was all right and he and other musicians looked very concerned prior to the interval.

About ten minutes before the end of Zarathustra, Mariss Jansons leapt a few inches off the podium and at that point seemed well. I wondered if his heart went into tachycardia and whether his defibrillator gave him a jolt. He appeared to place his hand on his chest at one point. I was certainly relieved there were no encores.

I’ll be honest, I can’t give an opinion on Metamorphosen, I was too worried. However, I’m convinced that Mariss Jansons was scheduled to conduct it.

Anonymous said...

Rumour has it that Jansons indeed was not feeling to well. However, it is nothing to worry about. Latest is that he seems to be rehearsing this week in München according to plan (Beethoven on Thursday).

Tricia Markham said...

Thank you so much for the update. The news has made my day!

Tricia Markham said...
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Tricia Markham said...
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Anonymous said...

Sure. I think you can listen in to tonight's concert in München (live from 20h00 CET onwards) via: http://www.br.de/radio/br-klassik/programmkalender/sendung283326.html.

Anonymous said...

A Concertgebouw Orchestra fan from Holland reports: Jansons was definitely ill during the concert. Suffering from an attack of bronchitis he was hardly able to breathe. That was the reason Eschkenazy took over in the Metamorphosen. And also the reason the interval was so long. It was published in the newspapers in Holland. Yesterday Haitink was superb in Bruckner 5, so I hope you will enjoy the concert next Sunday (I feel tempted to fly over!).