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Mariss Jansons – His Last Concert – Live at Carnegie Hall
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, Op. 72, TrV 246a (1919-23) [23:43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [43:00]
Encore: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G Minor (orchestrated by Albert Parlow) [5:33]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 8th November 2019, Carnegie Hall, New York City
BR KLASSIK 900192 [72:20]

The album marks the death of maestro Mariss Jansons (1943-2019) with his final concert. For seventeen years, he was chief conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BRSO) and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The concert was part of the BRSO autumn tour, with dates in Europe and the USA.

At Carnegie Hall, Jansons conducted a programme of two works by Richard Strauss and Brahms, with an encore – but this album does not contain the entire Carnegie concert. Omitted is the recording of soprano Diana Damrau’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. On the night, it was announced Damrau was experiencing a head-cold but she felt able to perform. The concert was recorded for live radio broadcast by the American classical radio station WQXR.

Jansons had for some twenty years been receiving treatment for a serious heart condition. At the start of October 2019, he returned to the podium after a taking a regenerative break on doctors’ orders. On 10th October, just a few weeks prior to this recording, I was at Herkulessaal, Munich, reporting from a concert with Jansons conducting his BRSO in virtually the same programme. At Munich, the indisposed Diana Damrau was replaced by Sarah Wegener who sang six of Strauss’s orchestral songs. I was grateful that the maestro was back on the podium, and in truth I could not believe how ill and weak he appeared. The 9th November was the first of the two programmed Carnegie Hall concerts. Immediately afterwards, considerable concern was expressed at Jansons’s poor physical condition. One first-hand report stated that he was struggling to lift the baton properly. It was no surprise that he withdrew from the next days’ concert at Carnegie Hall, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko. Only three weeks later, on 30th November 2019, Jansons died at his St. Petersburg home.

This album is probably one of the earliest of a number of recordings likely to be released to honour Jansons. Already Warner Classics is releasing a 21 CD / 5 DVD set ‘Mariss Jansons - The Oslo Years’ to mark his lengthy term as principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Jansons was born in Latvia. He studied at Leningrad Conservatory, and later served as assistant to Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic, now St. Petersburg Philharmonic. He was a regular conductor of the orchestra until 1999. Jansons did much acclaimed work as music director of the Oslo Philharmonic for a most substantial period (1979-2002), and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1997-2004). He was also chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (2004-2015). In Germany, and in Munich in particular, Jansons was much admired. During his tenure as chief conductor of the BRSO, the number of orchestra subscribers increased almost three-fold. I attended Jansons concerts in each of the last twelve years. I sensed the conductor’s special bond with the BRSO, where he served as chief conductor in 2003-2019. Perhaps surprisingly given his failing health, in 2018 his contract was extended up to the end of the 2023/2024 season. In addition, Jansons has also appeared as a guest conductor with the world’s greatest orchestras, including three New Year’s Concerts with the Wiener Philharmoniker. He was recognised for conducting Austro- German repertoire: Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. High on his list, too, were Russian composers, specifically Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

As with so many German orchestras, Richard Strauss’s greatest orchestral music features heavily in programmes of the BRSO. The first performance on the album is Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo Interludes, a less well-known work, not heard too often. Strauss, born in Munich, is rightly acknowledged as one of the city’s favourite sons. Starting off in the city as a third conductor, he often conducted operas at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The premieres of his operas Friedenstag and Capriccio were given there. Munich-based too, the BRSO was only founded in 1949, the year Strauss died. So, he never conducted the Bavarian orchestra although its performing tradition is steeped in his music.

Intermezzo, with Strauss’s own libretto, was premiered in 1924 at Semperoper, Dresden. It is based on his own life episode(s) with his wife the soprano Pauline de Ahna. He subtitled the two-act opera a ‘bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes’. It is one of his least popular operas outside Germany and Austria. Occasionally encountered in the concert hall are the Four Symphonic Interludes taken by Strauss from between scenes of the opera as a concert suite.

It is hard to view these Intermezzo Interludes as close to Strauss’s best works. Nevertheless, this music contains moments of beauty, and I always find his innovative orchestration, at turns subtle and brilliant, endlessly fascinating. In this Carnegie Hall performance, despite some episodes of slightly uneven playing, Jansons and his Bavarians clearly believe in this underrated work. It gets a performance of vitality and significant warmth.

Hearing the Intermezzo Interludes outside their specific place in the actual opera, it is surprising the type of scene the music can create in the imagination, often far removed from the libretto’s original meaning. In the first interlude Reisefieber und Walzerszene (Travel Fever and Waltz Scene), Jansons stirs up a joyous sense of open-air excitement. At times sections remind me of features in sound world of the composer’s own tone poem, the Symphonia Domestica, and occasionally too Salome’s Dance. By contrast, Träumerei am Kamin (Dreaming by the Fireside) is predominantly tender music containing a discernible undertow of despondency. Notable is the aching quality of the strings that swell impressively, suggesting towards the end of glimpses through a window of magnificent Alpine peaks. With the rather pedestrian music of Am Spieltisch (At the Card-Table), it is challenging to imagine the scene of a card game between friends in the parlour of a palatial house with a fashionable Vienna address. In Jansons’s interpretation, the very short Finale, Fröhlicher Beschluss (Happy Ending) bursts into life. Throughout, the rhythmic vitality that the players generate evokes to me a strong sensation of motion, exhilaration and freedom – like a train journey through scenic countryside.

It certainly feels like a privilege to be able to hear Jansons conduct the BRSO in this satisfying performance of the Intermezzo Interludes, recorded soon after his Munich concert. I got to know this work thanks to a splendid re-mastered mono recording of the Staatskapelle Dresden under Otmar Suitner. Recorded in 1963 for broadcast by East German Radio at the Convention Hall, Dresden, Suitner’s set contains six Strauss works, released on BR-Klassik. With some allowance for its near sixty-year-old sound, its lyrical merit and warm atmosphere keep Suitner’s reading as my first choice.

After the interval at Carnegie Hall came a performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Its temperament is predominantly serious and essentially dark in outlook. Admittedly this is not the most immediately engaging of Brahms’s four symphonies. He worked on No. 4 during the summers of 1884 and 1885 at the resort town of Mürzzuschlag in the Styrian Alps. During his time at the Austrian resort, Brahms in self-depreciating manner wrote to Hans von Bülow. He declared that his symphony “tastes of the climate here; the cherries are hardly sweet here; you wouldn’t eat them!” Even before the premiere of the symphony, following a run through on the piano, most members of Brahms’s circle were generally unconvinced and uneasy with the work. On the other hand, Bülow, who had taken a rehearsal, enthused that the symphony was “stupendous, quite original, individual, and rock-like. Incomparable strength from start to finish.”

This work is different in character from the first three symphonies. At the premiere in 1885, it was the composer himself who conducted the Meininger Hofkapelle at Vienna. The was a very mixed reaction by critics and audience. It is understandable that early audiences were uncertain, and might have felt dismayed at the symphony focusing only on the rather severe and bleak aspects. In particular, I can imagine initial apprehension with the striking final movement, a symphonic passacaglia based on a theme adapted from Bach’s church cantata BWV 150, and a set of thirty variations with coda. Brahms’s biographer Walter Niemann considered describing the score as his ‘Elegiac’ symphony. Another critic dubbed it as ‘too intellectual.’ Nevertheless, the esteem of this symphony soon blossomed, and has endured strongly, to remain for some the most popular of Brahms’s set.

Jansons and the BRSO must have known this repertoire staple extremely well. In 2010, the same partnership recorded the work live at Herkulessaal, Munich as part of a set of the complete Brahms’s symphonies on BR-Klassik. This Carnegie Hall performance is satisfyingly played, very similar to how I remember it given at Munich a few weeks earlier. My assessment is that the players have a special affinity for this work, and seem to relish the score. The structure and proportions of the score are judiciously shaped. Jansons does not go down the route of demanding a powerfully driven, near nerve-jangling impact from his players. Yet, this is a beautifully played reading of grandeur. There is an entirely compelling and rewarding level of emotional intensity, pervaded with a shadowy undercurrent of foreboding. Almost inevitably, I have to single out the Finale, a symphonic passacaglia. The incisive playing creates a movement which I can only describe as having profound splendour.

This rewarding performance does not reflect the physical weakness of its ailing conductor but competition between rival recordings is intense, to say the least. My benchmark recording of the Symphony No. 4 – for its unrelenting aura of heart-searching, penetrating expression and strong sense of emotive power – is by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Now digitally re-mastered, this evergreen recording was made in 1956-1957 with renowned record producer Walter Legge at his favoured venue the Kingsway Hall, London. Klemperer’s recording of the Symphony No. 4 forms part of a magnificent three-CD symphony set on EMI. (The set includes Haydn Variations, Alto Rhapsody with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, Academic Festival Overture, and Tragic Overture.)

Jansons and the BRSO were recorded live in concert at the Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall. The engineering team have afforded them pleasing sound quality, relatively warm, clear and well balanced. To preserve live concert atmosphere, audience applause after each work has been retained. No real information about the featured scores is given in the booklet notes; they focus on tributes to Jansons, with a short biography.

Mariss Jansons and his Bavarian radio orchestra play Strauss and Brahms splendidly. Nevertheless, with fierce competition between recordings, especially the Brahms, neither performance would rank as my first choice. Even so, I doubt those Jansons admirers who want this album of the maestro’s last-ever concert will be disappointed.

Michael Cookson

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