Monday, 12 November 2007

BRSO/Jansons: Haydn and Mahler, 11 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D, ‘London’
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra remains a very fine ensemble indeed. Under its principal conductor, Mariss Jansons, it offered one of the best performances of a Haydn symphony I have heard in some time – not that we are overwhelmed with choice in that respect. Articulation was exemplary: musical rather than indulging in distorting point-scoring. That sort of thing is irritating enough when it comes from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but still worse when perpetrated by his imitators. Rhythms were spruce; they were pointed up by Jansons where necessary, but for the most part, he was happy to let the orchestra do what it could itself. The strings were allowed to play to their strengths, exhibiting sweetness and richness of tone without ever cloying or clogging up the arteries. The woodwind sounded delightful, adding to the string-based sonority rather than competing with it, and providing piquant soloistic colour. And the trumpets, horns, and kettledrum played their parts to perfection. There was once again no undue exhibitionism, simply fine musicianship, attentive to the rest of the orchestra and to the conductor, and marvellously pure in tone (the horns in particular).

The slow introduction to the first movement was relatively fleet, but was directed in such a way as to make this seem perfectly natural, its rhythmic and harmonic contours leading up to the outbreak of the exposition proper. Likewise, the second movement, admittedly an Andante rather than an Adagio, was taken at quite a flowing pace. Such was the care taken in phrasing and in the characterisation of every line, such was the attention paid to the combination of those lines, harmonically and contrapuntally, that again this felt just right, even if the timing on paper might have led one to suspect hurrying. The minuet was taken, as is now the fashion, one-to-a-bar. This generally leads to a loss of the stately character of the dance, but the technique and musicianship of conductor and players ensured that there was no loss of aristocratic grace. The cross rhythms were made to tell and there was none of the tedious short-breathed phrasing that disfigures so many contemporary performances: a longer line was always palpable. A slight relaxation of tempo for the trio was well judged. The celebrated drone finale swept all in its wake: fast but never rushed. Every instrumental line sang freely and joyfully, yet never merely for itself. Here especially, the antiphonal division of first and second violins paid dividends, Haydn’s imitative playfulness registering in delightful fashion.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony received for the most part a duly thrilling performance. There could again be no quarrel with the standard of orchestral playing, which impressed in every department, apart from a brief passage at the beginning of the final movement when some sections sounded a little tired. (One can certainly sympathise with their predicament.) Special mention should be made of the first horn and first trumpeter, whose solos were not only faultless but profoundly moving; there was no doubt that they understood the meaning behind the notes. The opening tattoo and its recurrences were ominous indeed. Moreover, the statements of the chorale, which at various points threatens to triumph but never quite does, were noble and thrilling: a tribute to all of the brass in particular. The ghostly pizzicati from the strings in the third movement were superbly managed, as was the Viennese Schwung of the final trio section of that movement. Thinking of the orchestra as a whole, and its direction from Jansons, an especially notable aspect of this performance was the bustling counterpoint , partly born of Mahler’s renewed interest in the music of Bach, and yet so utterly characteristic of the composer and his language. Not only the balance between various lines but also the impetus the sometimes frenetic activity gives to the symphony’s dramatic arch were as impressive as I can recall hearing them.

And yet, the interpretation did not seem to be quite settled. A noteworthy and commendable aspect was the clear division into Mahler’s three parts; the second and fifth movements were attacked immediately, so as to underline this. However, there were quite a few passages, which, if they did not quite meander, did not sound quite so necessary as they might. This was less the case in the first movement, whose funeral tread mightily impressed, but the complex Scherzo and the finale seemed – as so often it can, in all but the greatest performances – a little over-extended. There is a very difficult balance to strike in the finale, between the abundance of orchestral and contrapuntal virtuosity and the overall line, in terms of the movement itself and, even more trickily, its place in the symphonic whole. Leonard Bernstein, in his truly great Vienna recording, succeeded triumphantly in this as few have done before or since. Jansons is not there yet, but I have heard far more uncertain, prolix traversals. The Adagietto was beautiful, but a little earth-bound. Bernstein shows how it might be both æthereal and carnal, whilst also serving as an introduction to the boisterous high spirits of the fifth movement. Here it seemed somewhat static, the string tone slightly unleavened. The final characteristic I felt lacking was a sense of modernist adventure. One of the most enduringly fascinating aspects of Mahler is his position on the cusp of late Romanticism and the Second Viennese School. Different interpretations may choose to dwell more on one or the other, and may vary even within a single interpretation. However, the knife-edge experience of standing so close to the expressionist abyss should not be neglected entirely. There were times when the music sounded more like a presentiment of Shostakovich, and Mahler is far more ambiguous, far richer than that.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to speak of the work being treated as a concerto for orchestra, this was on occasion the impression one might have gleaned, owing to the mismatch – which should not be exaggerated, but which likewise should not be ignored – between the overall conception and the execution. There seems to me every reason to believe that Jansons will deepen his understanding of the work, so that before too long it will rank with the towering performance I heard of the Sixth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Salzburg in 2005. But the Fifth is an extremely treacherous work; I recall hearing Sir Simon Rattle say that he had left it alone for quite a while, having had his fingers burned early on. Earlier this year, I heard Daniel Barenboim fall much further short than Jansons, notwithstanding the fact that Barenboim went on to give extremely fine performances of the Seventh and Ninth. So there is no shame whatsoever in there being a longer journey to travel; this, after all, is part of the challenge and devotion Mahler inspires.