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Shostakovich, Haydn, Strauss: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, cond. Mariss Jansons, Barbican, 28-29.01.2006 (TJH)




Mariss Jansons once described the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as the “Rolls-Royce of orchestras”.  If that is true, than the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra must be the Aston Martin: well made, terribly stylish, and damned exciting when it needs to be.  But if Jansons himself has proved to be more than capable behind the wheel of both these luxury vehicles, he has on occasion displayed the unmistakable cautiousness of someone wary of scratching the paintwork, an unwillingness to really open up the throttle and let rip.  His performances with the RCO in particular – an orchestra which, after all, spent the last 16 years honing its modernist credentials under Riccardo Chailly – have seemed overly polished and lacking the oomph that has traditionally characterised Jansons’s performances.


The Shostakovich “Leningrad” Symphony they gave on Saturday was a case in point.  Jansons studied in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and cut his teeth with the Leningrad Philharmonic, working with no less a Shostakovich interpreter than Mravinsky.  Yet there was little that seemed genuinely Russian about this performance, despite its being one of Shostakovich’s most authentically patriotic works.  In place of the devastating bombast that should form the climax of the first movement’s much discussed “invasion theme”, Jansons brought us clear textures, expertly delineated counterpoint, and a dynamic level that wouldn’t have startled even the most timid of Soviet children.  Meanwhile, the pungency of the Stravinskyian chorale that opened the Adagio was all but obliterated by the unwavering good taste of the RCO’s cultured woodwinds, and it was left to the exciting finale to provide the bite otherwise absent from proceedings.  Of course, there was first-rate playing from all involved – with special mention to Ruth Visser, whose tiny cor anglais part was notable even in such excellent company – but it all seemed very far from the rubble-strewn streets of war torn Leningrad, and the symphony, sadly neglected these days, never convinced as it should have.


Just one night later, however, Jansons was able to justify every column-inch of hype that has been written about him.  Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben has become something of a party piece for Jansons: he performed it at the 2004 Proms with the BRSO, and his recording on the RCO Live label has been widely praised.  But this was something truly special, surely ranking as one of the most vivid and involving performances of this work I have ever had the privilege to hear.  Arguably the very summit of his fruitful career as a tone-poet, Heldenleben was the closest Strauss ever got to writing like his contemporary Mahler: in its mood-swings, its kaleidoscopic colouration, its heady solipsism and strident universalism, it contains – like the best Mahler symphony – a bit of everything.  Here, every player was given a chance to shine: Vesho Eschkenazy’s long and taxing violin solo was touchingly heartfelt; the eight horns played with collective virtuosity and remarkable individual agility; the woodwinds were pastel-hued and articulate, each player providing at least one memorable solo.  For his part, Jansons proved again that he is currently supreme in this repertoire, conducting with a grand overall sweep that belied his impressive attention to detail.  Ultimately, he found in the quieter moments – reflecting Strauss’s uxorious love for his wife – a previously unsuspected depth of beauty, as moving as anything he has conducted.  Even if he does not always live up to the myriad claims made of him, Jansons here proved why he is indeed one of the world’s greatest conductors; and if all he ever performed was Ein Heldenleben, he would be well worth hearing – again, and again, and again.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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