Saturday 12 May 2012

Concertgebouw/Jansons - Strauss, 12 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30
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.