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PROM 63 and PROM 65: Mahler, Lutoslawski, Brahms, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 1-2 September, 2005 (TJH)



Mahler – Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Jansons, conductor

Royal Albert Hall, 01/09/2005



Lutosławski – Concerto for Orchestra

Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Jansons, conductor

Royal Albert Hall, 02/09/2005


In many ways, Mariss Jansons represents the very quintessence of modern conductors.  His style of conducting is very much in fashion at the moment: intellectual, details-oriented, and fuelled by thorough preparation and rehearsal. Coupled with this is his recent election to the small-but-growing pantheon of Jet-Set Conductors, brought about last year when not only the Munich-based Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra but also the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam offered him positions at their respective helms.  The results of his collaboration with the former have so far been very positive, but what of the great RCO – an orchestra which, after all, has only had five other chief conductors in its illustrious history?


The answer, at least for London audiences, came during last Thursday and Friday nights’ Proms.  This was the orchestra’s first visit here under their new director and the good news is that the hype proved at least partially justified.  If nothing else, the orchestra sounded superb: the DSO Berlin, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra – none held a candle to the luxurious, velvety RCO.  This in itself is encouraging: under their last music director, Riccardo Chailly, the orchestra’s distinctive sound had noticeably suffered.  Jansons has clearly been working overtime to restore them to their glory days, and the results, after a scant 12 months, are indeed impressive.


Nowhere was this more evident than in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which comprised the entire first programme.  Few orchestras can claim the Mahler pedigree of the RCO: they have worked with a string of great Mahler conductors in their 120-year span, from the composer himself through to Mengelberg, Kubelik and Haitink.  Even so, Thursday’s Sixth was impressively well played.  Massed brass seamlessly blended in with and into the orchestra’s impeccable woodwind choir; the strings proved at once virtuosic and lustrous.  Difficult solos ceased to sound difficult, while ensemble remained spot-on at all times.  In fact, every detail of scoring, articulation and tempo was acutely observed, played by a group of men and women whose understanding of the music seemed personal and profound.


Interestingly, though, it was not the large-scale, emotionally charged outer movements which provided the most satisfaction; rather, it was the two inner movements, which can on some occasions sound little more than interludes.  Jansons is a well-known convert to the latest thinking on the ordering of these movements, an issue which still provokes much heated debate in the Mahler community.  Though the arguments for and against are too numerous to delve into here, it is enough to say that Jansons opted for the Andante-first approach on Thursday and went some way to proving just how effective an arrangement it can be.  The respite offered by that movement came as welcome relief after the noisy climax of the Allegro energico it followed; by the same token, the expected reprieve following the menacing Scherzo was cruelly snatched away by the onset of the violent finale.


If there was a problem with the performance, though, it was its unadorned perfection.  The Sixth is the symphonic equivalent of a sustained, anguished cry; it probes the psychological extremes, straining at the edge of rationality and occasionally lapsing into hysteria.  But Jansons’ conducting was too sophisticated, too genteel and in too much good taste to have any real emotional impact.  As much as his commitment to detail is admirable, it also tends to smooth over the rougher edges that are, in Mahler’s case, an integral part of the musical experience; and though some will no doubt have welcomed the sheen of professionalism he and the RCO brought to bear on this score, I found it hard to reconcile with the composer of a symphony that calls for cowbells and sledgehammers in its instrumentation.


Jansons’ approach was marginally more effective in Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra the following night.  Any work designed to show off an orchestra’s capabilities is going to be served well by a band of this calibre, and it is impossible to over-emphasize the care and commitment the RCO took with this underappreciated score: every layer was clearly delineated, and Jansons overall grasp on the pieces’ structure was magnificent.  But again, something of the artlessness of Lutosławski’s most popular – and populist – piece was gone, buffed to a shiny finish that never quite rang true.  In a piece that owes so much to the vernacular – packed as it is with quasi-folk tunes and jaunty rhythms – this performance had a distinctly posh accent.


The same criticisms would be inappropriate for Brahms, however.  His First Symphony, which concluded the second programme, was never meant to incorporate the whole world like one of Mahler’s epics, nor the boisterous energy of Lutosławski’s orchestral showcase.  It may have been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” in its day, but its argument is far more formal, and indeed more logical, than Beethoven’s sublimely ridiculous Ninth.  Instead, it is a work that is best performed with as much sobriety as it is possible to muster, and Jansons’ cold, clean approach seemed – superficially – well-suited.  Unfortunately, the superficial is all he delivered, for he never scratched beneath the immaculate surface of Brahms’ darkest symphony; indeed, only in the second movement, another perfectly-judged ‘interlude’, did Jansons allow himself and the audience to luxuriate in the warmth of the RCO’s superb playing.


Ultimately, Jansons biggest problem as a conductor is a tendency to avoid the spontaneous.  One got the sense that these performances would have sounded identical at a different venue on a different night; they were so meticulously prepared and polished that there was no room to let the music breathe.  In fact, with eyes closed, the Royal Albert Hall sounded like an expensive sound system, with the music coming from a studio recording.  That slightly empty feeling was the dearth of an involved and fully engaged audience, of the frisson that inspires the musicians on stage to create something not just beautiful, but truly sublime.  If and when Jansons starts playing off his audience – indeed, playing off the musicians under his control – he may well become the great conductor he is reputed to be.  In the meantime, though, his performances inspire just as much frustration as they do respect.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff


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