lived in Pittsburgh during most of Mariss Jansons’
tenure as chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Native Pittsburghers are fierce in their loyalties, not only
to their sports teams and coaches but analogously to other cultural
institutions — such as the Symphony and its conductor. My own
feelings toward Jansons were more ambivalent. I appreciated
his programming choices: a lot of twentieth-century music, including
challenging and contemporary works. His conducting, however,
often left me cold: heavy accents on the exciting parts to rouse
the crowd, at the expense of a coherent and compelling musical
argument. Sometimes, though, he could transcend himself: by
far the most intense concert experience of my sheltered musical
life was his performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, shortly
before his departure to Europe.
So I was curious to sample his work with one of his new orchestras,
the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Is he, then, a worthy successor
to the post once held by Rafael Kubelik?
judge by this recording: No. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s
Pathètique shows that he has a better orchestra than
he did (Chandos CHAN 8446) in Oslo - which is not to say that the Norwegians
are slouches. There are, to me, two reference recordings for
Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies. The first are the 1960 London tour performances by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic (DG
419 745-2). The searing intensity, the unwavering commitment
of these readings demonstrate the defiant resolution of these
musicians, unvanquished by Stalinist oppressions. The other
interpretive extreme is Bernstein’s nearly concurrent (1964)
recording with the New York Philharmonic (Sony SMK 47635). Not
surprisingly for this conductor, this is Tchaikovsky seen through
the lens of Mahler, and convincingly so. The Pathètique
becomes a narrative of introspection and psychological struggle.
Nobody can tell the resignation of the fourth movement Adagio
lamentoso like Bernstein can. Jansons seems to try to steer
between these two extremes. Perhaps he tries to get the best
of both interpretive approaches. If so, he fails, and achieves
something neither fish nor fowl.
and Schoenberg inhabit very distinct and, to my mind and ear,
very different, sound-worlds. To couple these two works, in
concert or recording, requires a convincing case to be made,
and in this case no attempt here is made to do this. Jansons
plays Schoenberg as he plays Tchaikovsky, shifting gears insufficiently
to achieve the late-Romantic sound-scape that Schoenberg paints.
Again, he takes an inconclusive middle road, achieving some,
but not all, of the clarity of sound and musical argument found
by Boulez (Sony SMK 48465), while conveying some, but not enough,
of the hyper-romantic authenticity found by Chailly (London
liner notes in the copy I received were solely auf Deutsch.
The applause after each of the works could have, and should
have, been edited out.
that Jansons has been garnering leadership of world-class orchestras,
it is frustrating that he does not evince more consistent musical