Concertgebouw at Carnegie Hall: Mostly Sweet, Sometimes Strange

United StatesUnited States Bartók, Mahler: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 13.2.2013 (BH)

Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937-1938)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (ca. 1884-1888, rev. 1893-1896, rev. ca. 1906)

There are few things more pleasurable than imagining a concert of Mahler played by one of the world’s premier Mahler ensembles, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. On the balcony of their acoustic temple of a hall in Amsterdam, the composer’s name is dead-center among other well-known classical composers—just one measure of how highly regarded he is. This performance, the first of two led by Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons at Carnegie Hall, did not disappoint, starting with a sublime, rock-steady unison leading to some of the most spectacular horn work I’ve heard all year. And with the strings in some well-judged portamento figures (to my ears, a bit of a lovely throwback) Jansons conjured up a veritable zoo exhibit of birds mostly in the orchestra’s peerless woodwinds.

The second movement, taken slightly slower, seemed to bring out something special in the players; I caught a number of them exchanging good-humored glances (when not soberly focused) despite the virtuosic demands that rear up like flames, out of control. Jansons gave the final chord an irresistible splash.

Not knowing principal bassist Dominic Seldis, I hope he was the one delivering the sorrowful, deliberately anemic-sounding opening solo that opened the third movement, with his gently attentive colleague, timpanist Marinus Komst. Later, the klezmer episodes were magnificently handled, as if one were passing by an open door of a pulsing dance hall. And the finale—loud but never coarse—was rhapsodic, with an ultra-tight ensemble. Yet perhaps paradoxically, Jansons was relaxed, often holding his baton but not using it, letting his bare hands gently do the work instead. That sense of relaxation made the finale’s dynamite charges even more ferocious—the climactic fanfares felt like buckets of paint hurled against a wall—set against string interludes of breathtaking tenderness and precision. Afterward I thought, “If you’re going to hear this piece, this is how you should hear it.”

Before intermission, Leonidas Kavakos gave a sweet, slightly strange reading of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. I use the word “strange” not in a pejorative sense, but reflecting a bit of the concerto’s dual personality: one minute it’s sweet as a wildflower on a rock, the next it’s packed with rhythmic tension. Kavakos let his tone veer from almost too mellow to raucous, in passages that made my ears leap to attention. The first movement ends with a cadenza that is a magnificent zigzag puzzle of interlocking folk songs; at the end there was scattered audience applause. The second movement—sad, with the violin in gently meandering lines—showed the orchestra at its most delicate. And in the final movement, Kavakos showed the exceptional power of his instrument, whether riding above his colleagues or plunging in to join them in Bartók’s thickets. An encore, Ysaÿe’s Allemanda from his Sonata in E Minor, Op. 27, No. 4 (“Fritz Kreisler”) had the audience spellbound.

Bruce Hodges