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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Proms 60 and 62 R. Strauss, Sibelius, Honegger and Beethoven: Soloists / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons (cond.) Royal Albert Hall, London. 29 and 30.8.2007 (ED)


Mariss Jansons is a man whose every fibre and instinct acknowledges that music would not be half so interesting without contrast. Taking a wide view of it across a concert, even two, between the works in a programme, or the narrower view offered by contrast between movements and themes of a work, it is a factor that can propel and sustain interest in the arguments of sound that take place. Then there is Jansons’ own personal contrast in the discipline he brings to conducting and the joyous exuberance he draws out of his orchestras in performance.

Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is a work that for some shoots its bolt within the opening minute. Hardly the case in this performance, as, having elected to provide their own organ – on the ground that the RAH’s mighty beast could not be pitched accurately enough to integrate with the orchestra – the result proved somewhat underwhelming. Jansons was keen to delve deep beyond the infamous 'Sunrise' as he explored man’s journey of ascent in self-awareness towards the 'superman' through some decidedly brisk tempi that gave the orchestra its first opportunity to show its departmental strengths across brass, percussion and woodwind in particular. In the end though despite the higher calling of enlightenment some aspect of nature’s importance within the overall scheme was most telling in this reading.

Sibelius’ Second symphony carried forth the theme of nature into the concert’s second half. The first movement found Jansons focussing on the atmospherics in the writing through sound expounding of the music’s terse arguments. This was to contrast well with the broad tempo adopted in the second movement. Many conductors can come unstuck when required to control tonal body and shape phrases across a wide crescendo, but not Jansons. His superb forces responded with playing of due care and attention. The closing movement highlighted Sibelius’s logical progression of thought as a means of building an orchestral structure, something Jansons sought to emphasise in his thoughtful yet highly fluent direction.

Miniature contrasts were to be had in the encores: Sibelius’s Valse Triste, given with the utmost finesse of articulation, whilst the conclusion of Bartok’s The
Miraculous Mandarin provided something altogether more abrasive yet no less thrilling as to quality of execution.

Jansons is one of a handful of conductors to advocate Honegger’s symphonies today. The third was born out of war and its aftermath, its three movements focussing on dark – some might say depressing – themes. As such Jansons facility for producing thick tone from the strings very much in the manner of Eastern European orchestras of old came into its own. Elements of militaria were detectable in the first movement’s use of the side drum, whose precision added to the sense of despair and terror in the composition as a whole. The second movement turned up the emotional pressure cooker of the composition still further with particularly edgy dispatch being given to the shards of brass texture in the second movement. The conclusions slow collapse in terms of orchestral ideas if not structure landed the work at its final low ebb, making one feel that it was something of a period piece, yet given the current international climate it could be one with a renewed relevance.

Beethoven’s ninth symphony, in its second outing this season, proved a mixed affair in its own terms but superior to the account given on the opening night. Jansons is not, I think, a natural Beethoven symphonic conductor. His view of the work contrasts heavily with the craggy approach expounded by the likes of Klemperer et al, and favoured the more modern swifter approach given by the likes of David Zinman. Throughout the first three movements there were moments of individual interest, not least created by the authoritative tone of the playing, even if it could have done with some more body in the string parts at times. Yet for all that not enough contrast was made between the first three and the final movement, which did not quite stamp its originality with absolute authority. Michael Volle was too baritonal and light of timbre really to be ideal with Beethoven’s sung entry lines. The soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and mezzo Lioba Braun put in strong performances, leaving only Michael Schade’s ill-pitched tenor out of sorts. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus contributed their parts with cultured vigour and enthusiasm to round off Schiller’s famous Ode and bring more uplifting feeling than was in evidence from the BBC’s homespun forces in July.


Evan Dickerson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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