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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.