Mariss Jansons Conducts Richard Strauss With Mixed Success

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  R. Strauss: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons. Barbican Hall, London 12.5.2012 (CC)

Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Mariss Jansons has been the principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2004. It is an appointment that has long puzzled me – Jansons is a capable conductor, but he is a long way from a great one, as this concert demonstrated perfectly. His father, Arvid, who I was lucky to hear conducting the Hallé Orchestra many years ago, never reached these exalted career heights – Mariss is also Principal Conductor of another great ensemble, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – but he was a musician’s musician who simply exuded musicality. It seems particularly cruel that, although Mariss is a long way from his father’s musical equal, it is he who has won the golden contracts.

The Concertgebouw has a long history of eminent Straussians at its helm (Mengelberg, Haitink). Jansons is not one of them. In Also sprach Zarathustra some instances of awkward ensemble (especially at the very end) detracted; but whatever positives there were – and there were many – they could not make this add up to a great interpretation. It was an interesting reading, in that Jansons emphasized the dark side of the piece – indeed, one of the most impressive moments was the feeling of held-breath stasis at the very opening, prior to the famous trumpets. There was a keen structural hand at the helm, too, as the piece unveiled itself with a sense of organic metamorphosis of its materials. The violin solos by the leader, Vesko Eschkenazy, were good if not outstanding, perhaps requiring a touch more character. And perhaps that was the problem throughout. Technically, there were incredibly impressive moments, including some playful, humorous ones. Indeed, the ingredients seemed all there for a great performance. A pity, then, that it did not fully gel.

The Metamorphosen that opened the second half was delivered without conductor (I don’t remember seeing this advertised as without Jansons, so it came as something of an eyebrow-lifting moment when the lights dimmed and the performance just started). Unshackled, the 23 solo strings delivered the most memorable playing of the night. The ensemble sound was simply gorgeous; climaxes glowed. Quite apart from the sheer beauty of sound, this was deeply considered chamber music. As a member of the audience, I felt I was eavesdropping on a very private event. The references to the dotted motif from the funeral march of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony were unmistakable, and poignant. This was by far the highlight of the evening.

Finally, the Rosenkavalier Suite of 1945. There is a certain amount of controversy about this Suite. Was it compiled by Rodzinski? The dramatic sequence is reordered, and the use of Ochs’s Waltz to round things off seems bizarre, almost indicating a lack of trust in Straussian poetic magic. Whatever, this was a swaggering, bright performance (delicious horn whoops!). Finally, it sounded as if things were gelling, with gossamer, silky strings for the Waltz and golden brass climaxes. But the ending could not really be rescued. There was no standing ovation (some people on their feet, but not enough to justify the term) and a nearly-but-not-quite encore; the fact players were putting out new music indicated that one was on the way – but no, it was a cruel feint. Perhaps we only get one if we ALL stand up.

A mixed evening, to be sure. There is no doubting that this orchestra is one of this planet’s greatest ensembles. Now it just needs a conductor who can match their standards.

Colin Clarke