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Debussy, Images and Sibelius, Symphony No.2 in D major, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Barbican, 12 June, 2005 (MB)



It is difficult to say whether Mariss Jansons is lucky to be Music Director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, or whether the orchestra is lucky to have him. Both statements are true, of course, but rarely is a musical partnership today so equally balanced as this one. If I slightly prefer Jansons’ ongoing relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (mainly because I have heard more of it) it is because the combination of that orchestra’s fabulous sound (unequalled in my view) with this conductor’s ability to electrify that orchestra is second to none. A magnificent Ein Heldenleben at last year’s Proms was testimony to that. Yet, Jansons and the Concertgebouw gave on Sunday afternoon such an unforgettable performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony that it would be easy to reverse that critical judgment. It was not so much the astonishing refinement and perfection of the orchestral playing which impressed, it was also an uncanny telepathy between what conductor and orchestra achieved musically.



The concert had opened with Debussy’s Images, giving an opportunity, if it was taken, to showcase this orchestra’s peerless woodwind section. It was taken, and, throughout, the careful woodwind balances, with dark-hued, lustrous clarinets and brightly shining flutes, created a sense of coloration that was both uniquely brilliant and purposefully suggestive. Ibéria, so much the central piece of this work, showed what great woodwind playing can achieve: in the dialogue in the Meno mosso passage of the first movement, for example, Jansons conjured up a twittering panoply of sound on piccolos against a backdrop of pizzicato on first violins. The solo oboe and viola added harmonic voices in an iridescent fashion.



One of the problems of Debussy is often that his music is taken as a series of impressionist fragments but Jansons avoided doing this. The ever-so important first octave for the woodwind at Ibéria’s opening did not just re-appear throughout the work as a fragmentary octave it appeared as a lateral figuration of that first measure. The triple clarinets, playing in the lowest register with a rumbling darkness, were in total sympathy with not just each other but with what had preceded it. In this sense, Jansons and the orchestra presented us with a vision of Images which was not still but constantly moving, constantly evolving.



If the playing for the Debussy had been refined and assured, the orchestra surpassed even its illustrious standards in Sibelius’ Second. Strings in the first movement displayed both a felicitous lightness in the opening bars, and a tremendous weight in the movement’s central section. Soaring violins against a thundering ‘cello and bass line showed the two facets of this orchestra’s string tone working in complete harmony, as did sublimely dark-hued bassoons playing alongside shrill clarinets and flutes. But, if Sibelius’ First is a very Tchaikovskian work, Jansons takes a very lucid and transparently Finnish view of the Second where the sound grows organically out of itself: how beautifully Jansons coaxed the Concertgebouw to rise from the near mistiness of the second movement’s opening to attain an unpretentious monumentality at its core. The finale grew out of the wild scherzo with inevitable tonal finesse; the musical division between the two final movements seamless, and faultlessly charted.



Majesty was carefully interwoven with emotion throughout. Jansons conjured the orchestra into living from within the score and as so often with this performance the music had both a distilled, restless quietness as well as an inexorable force. The closing of the symphony had effervescence shining through it, a youthfulness and sweep that combined both emotion and intense, almost indescribable power. A lesser orchestra would have marred this supreme moment of Sibelian optimism by burying the trenchant basses under a maelstrom of foggy brass; what Jansons and his orchestra achieved was a complete clarity of detail and tension: double-basses were as optimally captured at the work’s close as woodwind and brass were. It was both shockingly vivid and immensely focussed.



Encores were deliberately chosen to reflect this orchestra’s strengths: none did it better than the second, the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, which was glowing, electrifying and a torrent of collective virtuosity. Outstanding in every way.



Marc Bridle




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