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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Symphony No.5, Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Royal Festival Hall, 2nd February 2004 (MB)

In some ways, the trajectory of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra follows a similar one to London’s own Philharmonia Orchestra. Both are of a comparable age, both were founded by inspirational musical figures whose main criteria was to attract players of the highest calibre, and both have had an illustrious roster of conductors perform with them. One conductor who enjoyed a warm relationship with the orchestra was Leonard Bernstein and anyone who has ever heard his Philips recording of Tristan und Isolde will know how magnificently the Bavarian orchestra plays for him; in many ways, it is the finest orchestral performance of the score ever committed to disc. The greatness of this orchestra should surprise no-one.

The Bavarian’s sound is unique and instantly identifiable – rich strings, characterful woodwind and glowing brass allied with playing of uncommon precision. It is a wholly German sound – much more German than that of the Berlin Philharmonic, in fact – and that glorious sound was in evidence when Mariss Jansons brought the orchestra to London on Monday for their first UK concert with him as their new Chief Conductor.

The programme – two revolutionary Nineteenth century symphonies – proved an inspired one. Jansons has a knack of making the most familiar works sound spontaneous and fresh (who can ever forget his extraordinary performance at a Prom two years ago of Dvorak’s New World Symphony with the LSO) and that was the case with both works here; if the performance of Berlioz’s symphony was the greater one it was largely because the orchestra wore its virtuosity so lightly on its sleeve.

The youthful make-up of this orchestra – with some of the woodwind players literally dancing with their instruments – made the performance not only aurally compelling, but visually compelling too; and with Jansons not just igniting fires within the orchestra but balancing the work’s histrionics to within a whisker of decency it proved to be as satisfying musically as it did sonically. Off stage timpani in ‘In the Meadows’, for example, were thrilling – just muffled enough to add mystery, just thunderous enough to fracture the solitude – and a tolling bell from high up in the auditorium was visceral without being overwhelming or a distraction.

Such carefully graded tone shading was symptomatic of the performance as a whole. Some of the orchestras best playing was reserved for ‘Un bal’ where the carnivalesque playing was just brilliant enough to be self-effacing. ‘In the Meadows’ produced dynamics of breathless weightlessness whilst the ‘March to the Scaffold’ was exhilarating in its directness, with the movement’s fleeting changes from fierceness and sombreness plunged into bitter relief. ‘Sabbath Night Dream’ verged between tubas that plummeted to grotesque depths and skeletal wood tappings that were sinister, almost like an echo of welcome into Hell itself. It was an orgy of sound that was simply magical. The coda was a final flourish of brilliance, as ecstatic as it was torrential.

The greatness of the performance lay as much in Jansons vivid view of the symphony – a panoply of sound that he interjected with single-minded insight – as it did with the pristine playing of the orchestra. If one image stands out, it was of two harps placed either side of the podium to give the impression of the conductor wearing angel’s wings. Nothing could more clearly illuminate the virtues of this heavenly performance.

The drama of Beethoven’s Fifth could have been made for Jansons and he succeeded in giving a performance of the work that satisfied from first note to last. The well-drilled hammer blows that open the work were nailed with fortitude – this is, after all, a conductor who has touched death – and often throughout the drama of the first movement Jansons and the orchestra did play this music as if their lives depended upon it. At times, it seemed uncontrollable with the sheer depth of the strings offset against their own untamed violence, bows lashing the air around them like sharpened rapiers. When the Andante arrived it did so with uncommon calm – though not resignation – and proved mercurial in phrasing and tone. The Trio was neatly done, though couldn’t foresee the terrible unleashing of sound that the Allegro brought to the performance. Utterly memorable was the piquant phrasing of the piccolo – never before done so acidly as it was here – and the resplendent horns and trombones that filtered explosions of sound through music making of uncommon directness. The closing pages blazed like a Dantean inferno.

In an age of great orchestras the Bavarian Radio Symphony stands amongst the greatest. That glorious sound is not just sublime it is also hypnotic. Time and time again I found myself mesmerised by the sheer beauty of what I was hearing. With Mariss Jansons at the helm we are witnessing one of the great musical partnerships of the age.

Marc Bridle




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