Monday 30 March 2009

BRSO/Jansons - Beethoven, Strauss, and Ravel, 29 March 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’
Strauss – Vier letzte Lieder
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé: suite no.2

Anja Harteros (soprano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

On paper, this seemed rather a perplexing programme; it did not make a great deal more sense in practice. Placing the Eroica symphony in the first half of a programme might occasionally have something to be said for it, maybe with other carefully chosen Beethoven, or a Romantic or twentieth-century work both influenced by it and of standing such that it would not be overshadowed: perhaps the Symphonie fantastique or Ein Heldenleben. There might be other possibilities; there is certainly no point in being prescriptive. However, I do not think Strauss’s Four last songs and the second Daphnis et Chloé suite, masterpieces though they may be, would even have made much sense as companions to the Eroica had they preceded rather than followed it.

The performances were mixed too. This was certainly not an Eroica to grab one by the scruff of one’s neck, to make one recognise it as probably the most revolutionary chapter in the entire history of the symphony. Mariss Jansons had little truck, thankfully, with ‘authenticity’, but nor was this a performance of old-school drama or monumentality. That ruggedness characteristic of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelík, and Sir Colin Davis, seemed to have vanished. The first movement in particular glid past, pleasantly and musically. But what did it mean? As I remarked recently, with respect to Daniele Gatti’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, one might not be able to answer such a question in words, but one should at least try with music. And, I might add, with music, which, pace Stravinsky, most certainly can express something, however directly or indirectly, other than itself. Toscanini notoriously claimed: ‘Is not Napoleon. Is not Eroica. Is Allegro con brio.’ That, minus a little brio, is what it sounded like here, although with an infinitely greater sense of musical ebb and flow than the Italian conductor ever mustered.

The Funeral March was on its own, somewhat reduced terms rather impressive. One could have wanted more gravitas. Jansons nevertheless summoned up a cumulative, apparently ‘purely musical’ flow, which, backed up by the French Revolutionary resonances of prominent wind, here beautifully performed by his Munich players, imparted an almost Grecian note to proceedings, even if the note struck were more of personal sadness than world-historical tragedy. . I was also much taken with the scherzo, fleet yet never trivial, and the marvellous trio, in which the Bavarian horns played their part to perfection. The finale was good in parts, yet I never had the sense one does from, say, Furtwängler (inevitably) or Klemperer (ditto), that the variations came together as an absolute whole. I have heard some utter nonsense spoken about this movement; any fault lies with less than great performances rather than with Beethoven. Philippe Boucly's flute solo was especially well taken, indeed mesmerisingly so. Jansons is, of course, a marvellous conductor, but I am not sure that Beethoven shows him to his greatest advantage. Consider the following programme note to this very symphony from Wagner in 1851:

… the term ‘heroic’ must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand ‘hero’ to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human …

Such ambition might or might not prove realisable; here, despite considerable musical qualities, it was never on the agenda.

The Strauss songs were in many ways rather similar. I certainly have heard Jansons impress in Strauss but not so much here. Im Frühling was taken at a faster pace than I have ever heard, which might make some sort of sense, I suppose, in distinguishing spring from the all-pervasive autumnal mood of its successors. It merely sounded hasty, however, peremptory even, and ‘tradition’ is surely right to consider this a retrospective, autumnal view of spring. Other tempi were relatively brisk, especially when compared with Karajan’s recording with Gundula Janowitz, which has made so indelible a mark upon my consciousness. Orchestral soli were wondrously taken, the violin and horn especially noteworthy, but the orchestra as a whole sometimes sounded a little routine: Karajan on an off-day, yet, for better or worse, without the sheen. The final sunset was beautiful, if a little overtly pictorial; for my taste, suggestive metaphor should be more to the fore than actual birdsong. Anja Harteros was good without in any sense proving memorable. Her diction improved as time went on; perhaps that was a matter of adjusting to the acoustic. I found her tone a touch glamorous, rather than meaningful; surely the trick here is to understand that Strauss’s writing for his favourite instrument, the soprano voice, is both ‘instrumental’ and acute in its response to the texts. It is not necessary to ‘respond’ in such minute detail as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, although that is certainly one route to follow, but this is so much more than mood music.

For me, the best performance was of Ravel’s suite, which left me wishing we had heard the complete ballet. Here, even if I were inclined to do so, I should be able to find nothing to fault. The BRSO sounded superlatively French in timbre, precision, and warmth, rather in the way that the Boston Symphony Orchestra did in its heyday, without any of the thinness of tone that has often bedevilled actually existing French orchestras. Once again, the flute solos in particular (Boucly) were outstanding. Jansons conjured magic from every bar, granting each movement its particular character yet never forgetting that, even as a suite, there is a greater unity to consider. Ravel’s peerless orchestration was truly given its head, with blend as important as, but not more important than, individual timbres; the two aspects sounded in quite perfect balance. The sunrise was an object lesson in how to portray such ‘natural’ – actually nothing of the sort – phenomena, quite a contrast with Strauss’s sunset. And the concluding Danse générale was, quite rightly, both sensuous and rhythmically exciting.

Such virtues were maintained in the two encores: ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt and ‘The Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s second Wand of Youth suite. The former contrasted chasteness with revealing hints of Tchaikovsky, whilst the latter proved an object lesson in rhythmic and colouristic scintillation. One might never have guessed that it was by Elgar...