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Mariss Jansons in Rehearsal (1997)
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin Suite (1919-1928)
Rehearsal [35:09]
Performance [19:51]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. Oslo, August 1997
Written/directed by Morten Thomte
An NRK production in association with RM Arts
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 318 (PAL) [55:00]


There is a grainy but prescient Jansons family photograph of the four-year-old Mariss 'conducting', with baton, score and ranks of trouser buttons as his orchestra. Fifty years later Jansons was the subject of another musical ‘snapshot’, this time in rehearsal and performance with the Oslo Philharmonic, to which he was appointed musical director in 1979.

Born into a musical family, the young Latvian from Riga was propelled through the Leningrad Conservatory, to studies with Hans Swarowski in Vienna and on to apprenticeships with two of the most formidable conductors of the day in more ways than one Herbert von Karajan and Evgeny Mravinsky. 

Fortunately, as this affectionate film shows, Jansons did not inherit the dictatorial mien of his mentors. Nor is there any sign of the narcissistic conductor-centred camerawork that disfigures the Karajan films; instead we have a documentary shot in the round as it were, with cutaways to members of the orchestra playing and listening, often smiling. A happy band indeed.

But affable and easygoing as he is Jansons is no pushover. Behind the relaxed exterior lies a powerful musical intelligence; he knows precisely what he wants from his players and they are more than willing to oblige. Indeed, he manages to coax all manner of nuances from his string and brass players here, no mean feat given the constant collision of rhythms and textures in the piece.

The rehearsal sequence is a judicious balance between short musical fragments and longer passages on the one hand and archive footage and interviews on the other. Extraneous footage is kept to a minimum and there is no distracting visual trickery either, the latter so often the undoing of 'portraits' like this.

So, what about the music itself? Well, Bartók 's 'grotesque pantomime' has certainly had a chequered history. Its violent libretto, from a play by the Hungarian playwright Menyhért Lengyel, meant the stage work was rejected by opera houses in both Vienna and Budapest. The premiere, in Cologne on 27 November 1926, created such a scandal that the city's mayor - and future German Chancellor - Konrad Adenauer banned it.

The suite has had an easier ride but a longer gestation. Bartók produced a version as early as 1919, which was performed under Fritz Busch in 1923. The final version was performed under Ernst von Dohnányi in Budapest five years later.

The Miraculous Mandarin has a bizarre plot, centred on three robbers who force a young girl to lure men off the street so they can be relieved of their wallets. The first two, a penniless rake and a shy young man, are summarily ejected but the third, a mandarin, is not so easily done over. The girl tries to seduce him with a wild dance but is repulsed by his advances. The thugs attempt to kill the mandarin but he miraculously survives suffocation, knifing and the rope. In a frenzied apotheosis the girl embraces the mandarin one last time, his wounds begin to bleed and, at last, he dies. 

On the big night Jansons draws some committed playing from the orchestra. Those strange clarinet and oboe solos, the trombone glissandi and the shriek of strings are well caught by the engineers, as are the mighty bass drum thwacks. Not surprisingly the audience applauds with some gusto as the conductor takes his bow. 

So what is it about these rehearsal/portrait films that is so endlessly fascinating? Is it the enduring 'maestro myth' that Norman Lebrecht debunks with such glee? These documentaries can capture something of the intense creative partnerships that produce great performances. Remember Bernstein's bad-tempered sessions for DG’s recording of West Side Story (DG DVD 073 4054)? Uncomfortable, unpleasant even, but the creative friction certainly produced great results, and that is really what matters.

  By contrast Morten Thomte's Oslo film never strays from its self-imposed 'comfort zone' and, because of that, it is perhaps less revealing or interesting than it might be. As a promotional piece it certainly projects a warm, cosy image of Jansons the conductor but it doesn't offer searching insights into either the man or the music. If you want more of the former the Ein Heldenleben performance on RCO DVD 0414 has a more extended feature on the conductor’s life and work. If you want the latter try Claudio Abbado's excellent LSO recording on DG 445 501-2, coupled with Two Portraits Op. 5 and Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta. A very fine disc it is too.

Even if Jansons’ performance of the Bartók doesn’t compare with the best available no one can deny that he and the Oslo Philharmonic were an excellent creative partnership. Nowhere is this more evident than in their Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for Chandos (CHAN 10392). 

The genial photographs of Jansons on the DVD booklet and the disc itself say it all, really. The video quality is fine, if not up to the standards of more recent issues, and the disc's soundtrack is PCM stereo only. At 55 minutes the disc may seem short measure but given the relatively light-hearted even lightweight nature of its content I'd say the filmmakers have pitched it just about right. 

Dan Morgan


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