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Smetana, Martinu and Brahms: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Mariss Jansons (conductor).  Barbican Hall London 12.12. 2009(GD)

:  The Bartered Bride - Overture
Martinu: Double Concerto for two string orchestra, piano and timpani.
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op, 98.

I am surprised that Smetana’s quintessentially Czech overture is not played more often in concert. This overture, which prefigures many of the burlesque/comic themes of the opera  The Bartered Bride  with its typically Czech, rhythmically charged, pentatonic opening figure, shows off the virtuosity, or not, of any orchestra. Although it never degenerates into a mere showpiece. I was amazed, not only at the meticulous accuracy of the Concertgebouw strings in their opening p, pp busy, overlapping figurations, but also in the generous warmth of tone they registered. No wonder some have claimed them to be 'the greatest orchestra in the world'. Of course such platitudes can be misleading, but when seated  as I was, in the front stalls,  the excellence of the  Concertgebouw certainly comes close to confirming such claims.

Jansonsconducted with plenty of brio, nicely contrasting the more dynamic/dramatically charged statements with the more beautifully lyrical (very Czech) sections. It may not have had quite the Czech 'authenticity' - the charmed lilt  of the Czech Philharmonic (but then,  which non Czech orchestra does?) -  but this music exceeds any national cultural boundary, and in this sense Jansons and the great Dutch orchestra were as 'authentic' as any other international performance. 

Jansons’ ability to contrast the dramatically dynamic with the lyrical, reflective was evident in spades in Martinu's superb double concerto  for which the great baroque tradition of 'concerto grosso' is the ground model. And although I am normally quite sceptical of attaching too much extra-musical meaning to any particular composition, I think here it almost impossible not to  associate the underlying 'dark'  and intense drama of the work with those dark days at Munich in Autumn of 1938.  At the time Martinu completed the work, the tragic and murderous fate  of Czechoslovakia was decided as part of a cowardly compromise with Hitler.  Jansons launched directly into the sustained counterpoint and grim antiphony of the opening 'Poco allegro' with a dynamic urgency which registered the thrusting power, but also the lean ( almost Mozartian) agility and economy of the tightly argued musical discourse. Here all three sections of the work were delivered  as a coherent and contrasting whole. The sustained 'Largo' never dragged - as in some recently heard performances -  and the piano, here coming into its own as a quasi continuo part, was distinctive and absolutely clear, while, at the same, time never dissociating from its elaborate accompanying and integrated contribution in the style of the classical concerto grosso. The finale, with its complex pizzicato rhythms and wild polyphonic string configurations made its full impact tonight and the final note of ominous doom, shot through with defiance/anger was trenchantly realised. This pivotal 20th century masterpiece makes a wonderful compliment to Bartok's 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta', written two years earlier. It is hoped that Jansons and the Concertgebouw will soon record the Martinu, with Bartok work as a possible coupling.

There were plenty of fine things in the Brahms symphony. Beautifully balanced celli and horns in the great surging E major second subject theme in the first movement; and also some wonderful pp playing in those harmonic modulations in E minor and G sharp minor, Donald Tovey's 'clouds of mystery' followed by a superb realisation of the movement's powerful coda. Similarly, the second movement 'Andante moderato', opened with some splendid horn playing, and the second subject's augmented melody for celli and violins ( non-antiphonal tonight) was ravishing in its nuanced, but never 'underlined' delivery.

But was this really andante moderato? At times it sounded more like an 'adagio' and by the time we reached the movement's climax based on a modulated triplet figure, Jansons found it necessary to make a considerable allargando.   I didn't hear much of Tovey's 'tiger-like' energy in the third movement 'Allegro giocoso', and on several occasions the basic 2/4 structure of the rhythmic unit was lost in some very untypical messy ensemble. The great passacaglia finale is stern test for any conductor. The set of variations, based a transposition of Bach's Cantata BWV 150, must be sustained in its contrasted unfolding by a firm underlying pulse. But tonight all this was delivered in a rather rushed manner where the 'sostenuto' dynamic/rhythmic intensity of Brahms's 'energico' went for vitually nothing. Jansons failed to observe the 'ominous ritardando' at the beginning of the great minor key coda, thus missing the true tragic power of  one of the greatest symphonic statements since Beethoven.  So, overall, an interesting concert with one of the finest performances of the the Martinu work I have heard. But despite some beautiful playing (which was a pleasure in itself) a disappointing   Brahms 4. Perhaps Jansons, in his role as chief conductor of two of the worlds finest orchestras - the Concertgebouw and the Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestra, will develop a more comprehensive and interpretative understanding of the European central classical symphonic canon.

No such reservations applied to the lively, spirited and virtuoso renditions of Brahms' Hungarian dance No 1 in G minor (Brahms' original orchestration from the piano version) and Dvorak's Slavonic dance No 7 in C major, from the Op 72 set, which were the two encores that  Jansons gave us tonight.

Geoff Diggines 


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