Lucky Germany! Santa Cecilia is Coming!

ItalyItaly Brahms and Prokofiev: Janine Jansen (violin), Orchestra Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor),  Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, 3.3.2012 (JB)

Brahms: Violin Concerto
Prokofiev: Symphony no. 5 in B flat, op. 100

Jansen-Pappano & Jeanine Janson Photo Accademia di Santa Cecilia

Brahms frequently sounds as though he were repairing his own soul, a task which he applies himself to with the unusual combination of surgical skill and passion. If I were to undergo surgery, I would certainly want the former, and be horrified if the latter were in evidence. Yet on each hearing of one of Brahms’s great works, against my better judgement, I become a willing – possibly hypnotized – victim of his amazing, passionate, surgical skills. Is there therefore something of the masochist in me? I only know with certainty that there is nothing of the sadist in Brahms. There is something too wholesome about him for that.

For all the wholesomeness, though, there is still something perverse. Perverse, since if you want to receive Brahms’s communication you have to take risks. These risks require you to let your guard down. Brahms’s passion is not, however, in the nature of a suitor; more that of a father. A father whose passion firmly takes in hand the innermost being of his innocent children. A pederast, then? This, I think, gets us as close to the truth as we are likely to get – in words, anyway. Of course, to go along with this, you will need to go along with Gilbert Harding, who is famously said to have replied to the question on the old American Visa Application Form, Do you suffer from sexual perversions? No, said he, I enjoy them.

If you sense the music of the Brahms violin concerto to be pulling in opposite directions in the same phrase, you are not imagining it. All Brahms’ friendships were tumultuous, and Joseph Joachim was no exception: the two men genuinely admired one another, this in itself giving them the right to be mutually critical.

Brahms, if pushed, could knock out a tune on a fiddle, but the piano was his instrument. Joachim was probably the greatest violinist of the nineteenth century. Brahms no doubt was delighted to have his friend’s advice on such matters as bowings and multiple stoppings. However, he often didn’t take that advice.

At the violin concerto’s premiere on January 1st, 1879, Joachim insisted on preceding his friend’s concerto with the Beethoven concerto. (He had given the London premiere of the Beethoven at the age of twelve, with Mendelssohn conducting.) The Beethoven was clearly an influence on Brahms. Joachim knew his reputation was secure with Beethoven. Of course, Brahms didn’t want his new work to be preceded by the work to which he owed such a debt. (I myself am on Brahms’s side, here.) But it was Joachim who called the shots. This drama between violinist and composer is audible in the music.

Enter the glamorous Janine Jansen. Her striking beauty embraces her playing – decisive, rich of tone with finely tuned harmonics, heartrendingly meditative when called for in the second movement, enchantingly rough in the finale and above all – an herein the key quality of this concerto – she shows herself in admirable partnership with the orchestra.

Brahms’s thinking is always symphonic and he uses the soloist as a member of the orchestra, one with its own voice, but essentially a member. Sarasate refused to play the concerto saying he was unwilling to stand with the fiddle under his arm while the oboe took over the concerto at the beginning of the second movement. Jansen responds beautifully to this requirement; hers is a reply when she enters on the tail of Francesco Di Rosa’s finely played oboe solo. Brahms would have hugged her. Of course, some credit for this exceptional and perfectly balanced partnership has to go to Sir Antonio and his excellent orchestra.

But for all my considerable enjoyment of this performance there was something disturbing me. And it took me a while to understand what it was. The disturbance was most noticeable in the edited version of the Joachim cadenza, even if it had troubled me before then.

Ms. Jansen plays on the 1727 Barrere Stradivari, on loan to her from the Elise Mathilde Foundation. As is usual with today’s great Strads, this one is strung with metal strings. Fine. But these steel strings are the wrong steel for this instrument. How do I know? Throughout the concerto there is much writing, both from Brahms, and in particular Joachim in the cadenza, involving multiple stopping and chords which use open strings. The fiddler’s left hand has no control over the sound in open strings; the instrument is exposed in the most naked way and must blend perfectly with the rest of the produced sound. I fear I must report that the open strings stood out as ugly. My dear Ms. Jansen, it is necessary to ask you to restring your instrument in order to render your magnificent playing perfect.

After the interval, the orchestra was exposed in all its virtuosity in Prokofiev’s fifth symphony. I have mentioned on many other occasions the excellent rapport the orchestra has with its conductor and that rapport was much in evidence here. The orchestra laughs better than it weeps, and there is plenty for it to do in the former category in this symphony. The strings were outstanding in the biting sound of the allegro marcato of the second movement, capturing with dazzling skill all Prokofiev’s irony. And the sheer exuberance of the allegro giocoso finale was a joy to the ears. Lucky Germany! You have some memorable music making on its way to you.

Jack Buckley

Note: The Orchestra of Santa Cecilia with its conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano and soloist Janine Jansen will be on tour in Germany with the above programme at the Cologne Philharmonie (8 March), Düsseldorf Tonhalle (9 March), Frankfurt Alte Oper (10 March) and Freiburg Konzerthaus (11 March).