Jansons Adds Lustre to Royal Concertgebouw’s Brucknerian Tradition

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner:  Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin),  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Mariss Jansons (conductor), Barbican Hall, London , 3.4 .2014 (GD)

Mozart: Violin Concerto No 3 in G major K 216
Bruckner: Symphony No 4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’


Although the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra does not travel to these shores regularly they have now been named as  a Barbican International  Associate Residency orchestra. Such an association works as a tremendous advantage for any concert hall establishment. And their three day visit to the Barbican to perform each night a huge Bruckner symphony together with concerti by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, has been eagerly awaited. The Orchestra is steeped in the performances of Bruckner. Willem Mengelberg, who was at the orchestra’s helm for over 50 years and worked miracles in changing what was, in the early 20th century, a relatively provincial orchestra into a world class orchestra, receiving the highest praise from composers like Mahler and Richard Strauss and countless eminent conductors including Bruno Walter, Abendroth and Klemperer.  It was also Mengelberg who, in his earlier years as Chief Conductor, initiated the Concertgebouw Bruckner tradition. This was carried on by Eduard Van Beinum,Eugen Jochum, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly, and now the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons.I heard Jansons in the Bruckner Fourth Symphony several years ago, at the Festival Hall,with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which Jansons is also currently the principal conductor.  (How does he find the time and energy?)  That orchestra is also steeped in Bruckner. At the time whilst satisfied overall with the performance, partcularly the splendid playing, I had a few criticisms regarding Janson’s structural grasp, especially in the long last movement, which is probably the most difficult to conduct. There was a general lack of symphonic structural coherence, with the tempo sagging in places.

I am pleased to report that tonight’s performance proved Jansons to be a far wiser Brucknerian than when I reviously heard him. I should imagine that much of this wisdom comes from working with this great orchestra. As Boulez said of that other great Bruckner orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic,’I learnt much more from them, than they did from me’. This could equally apply to Jansons and the Concertgebouw, but I am sure that like the older school of conductors Jansons has taken the time to study the scores in depth. Also, with Bruckner this means deciding what edition to perform. As in most of the other symphonies the Fourth has a complex history in the matter of editions. Although there has been a tendency of late to present re-vamped editions of the Schalk/Löwe versions of 1888, Jansons wisely used Leopold’s Nowak’s revised version of 1878/1880, which is far more satisfying in resolving most of these edition problems.  The first movement’s basic tempo tonight was quite measured, but it had a sure sense of movement and forward drive. Bruckner’s marking ‘Bewegt’ means ‘with movement’, not ‘lively’ as tonight’s programme note tells us. And this sense of movement with a measured, steady tempo was well observed. Where Bruckner adds …’not too fast’, ‘nicht zu schnell’ …he certainly does not intend the music to drag at the ponderously slow tempo adopted by some notable dead, and still living, recent conductors.  Apart from some uncharacteristic horn fluffs in the pp string tremolando opening, the first movement was superbly navigated with an impressive mid-movement build up in a constellation of minor key motives. The concluding thrilling horn calls in unision (all four) which confirm the home tonic of E flat major sounded resplendent without ever having the tone of a set piece showing off the horn section, which some maestri cannot resist. As with Klemperer everything cohered to a total symphonic logic.

Jansons understands the C minor funeral-like tread of the second movement’Andante, quasi allegretto’, with its echoes of Schubert. His tempo was a shade slower than the composer’s suggested marking. But the pace never dragged. The noble E flat climax was impressive,  the Concertgebouw brass choir sounding both resplendent and integrated. The recapitulation and the ‘penserosa’ close was a model of sustained pp string playing, with the ghost of the march theme on timpani so ‘there’ . The Scherzo was full of bucolic jubilation; with strong echoes of Weber’s Der Freischütz’ in the horn writng. But Jansons also gave it an aptly forceful rhythmic drive, with the ‘Ländler’ element in the trio idiomatically realised.

The long forty-two bar introduction to the last movement over a dominant B flat pedal, with horns interjecting their calls from the scherzo, sounded awe-inspiring at Jansons sustained tempo with no speeding up for effect. The descending octave leap at the powerful unison climax (the climax of the whole symphony?) seemed to consume the whole hall, despite the acoustic limitations of the Barbican Hall.  At this climactic point Jansons added a cymbal crash – a left-over from older discredited editions. But although basically unnecessary, it in no way impaired the composer’s vision. There is an old radio tape of this symphony from the Concertgebouw with van Beinum conducting from 1952. Here the cymbal crash is excluded and, if anything, the passage sounds even more powerful and dramatic, despite the recorded sound limitations. But tonight the woodwind and strings were perfectly balanced, their many intricate figurations (usually obscured) heard clearly amidst shattering tutti statements. The long finale  was made to sound trenchantly coherent.

As with other Bruckner finales there is a tendency for the music to be over-composed, too inventive, despite its many glories.  This music really needs a conductor like Jansons to make its many elements cohere – hang together, so to speak. The various chorale inversions/transformations which attempt to hold the massive structure together were made to sound tonight like an object lesson from conductor and orchestra in orchestral unity, never sounding merely loud, but tremendously powerful and full-toned. And all related/developed from the overall logic of symphonic sound-architecture, leading inevitably to the final major key blaze – a triumphant peroration of all the principal themes. ‘a Cathedral in sound’, to which Bruckner’s music has often been likened.

The concert had opened with an alert and expressive performance of Mozart’s ever fascinating Violin Concerto in G, K 216, written in 1775. This concerto is always cited as the first violin concerto  in which the nineteen year old composer develops  a range of compositional innovations and subtleties pre-figuring the later great piano concertos of the 1780’s when Mozart had finally moved to Vienna. The concerto is the first in which the soloist is given a freer range of expression which, however, never intrudes upon the wonderful sense of dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The second movement ‘Andante cantabile’ was unique at the time for its use of wonderfully radiant and nocturnal sounding muted strings and oboes with softer-toned flutes.  For Alfred Einstein it was: ‘an adagio that seems to have fallen straight from heaven’.  It is a movement which, to an outstanding degree ,exhibits a sublime gift for serene melodic perfection that was Mozart’s alone. We know, from letters to his violinist father that Mozart delighted in performing the concerto, himself playing and leading the orchestra – which, of course, was the performing fashion of the time.

This today raises all kinds of performative questions. For example,  do these concertos really need a conductor?  Violinists today, like Andrew Manze and Viktoria Mullova have, in their different ways,  revealed a level of dialogic musical engagement not always realised with conductor-led performances. Tonight there was a nice rapport between soloist Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Jansons. A reduced orchestra was deployed and Jansons conducted well. The Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most adaptable to’period’ style playing, especially in Mozart. The first movement’s contrast of festive nobility and carefree content was well caught,  and Jansons brought out the ‘special’ qualities of the second movement mentioned above. But despite this I didn’t always have the  sense of the soloist projecting that extra range of invention and expression, so evident from Mozart’s letters, and implied in the score. Also, in the final rondeau  I missed the irony and wit Mozart displays, especially in the inclusion of a powdered French-style gavotte intoned in orchestral pizzicatos. Also the contrasting rustic quality of the bass drone which Mozart called from a popular song, ‘The Strassbourger’. Zimmermann played all this but ultimately I missed that sense of greater expressive range, which Mozart so fully intended. But it was all quite competent, and, as stated above, Jansons and the Concertgebouw brought out all the ‘special’ qualities of this  unique concerto.

Overall this was a memorable concert, especially in the Bruckner. On the following Saturday evening I heard what sounded like an equally fine Bruckner 7 from Jansons and the Concertgebouw in a radio broadcast. If I have one overall criticism, it is more to do with the acoustics of the Barbican Hall. In the Mozart the sound was quite restricted. At times I had difficulty in discerning the level of interplay between orchestra and soloist;l and  the Bruckner tended to lose its focus and become a wash of sound. The tutti passages, particularly in the finale, sounded not so much powerful but loud and strident. I would love to hear these concerts in the orchestra’s home, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – a hall much more favourable to music of all ages and idioms in acoustic terms.

Geoff Diggines.

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