Memorable Rachmaninov from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 11.4.2017. (CS)

Mariss Jansons, © photo George Thum-500
Mariss Jansons © George Thum

Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 in D major Op.25 (Classical)
Shostakovich – Symphony No.1 in F minor Op.10
Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances Op.45

“I like his style of conducting. Forget about beating time, he just lets them get on with it.” The words of an audience member at the Barbican Hall, after a transparent and lithe rendition of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, may underestimate the skill and economy of the method but they certainly give a flavour of the innate and intense rapport between Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose Chief Conductor Jansons has been since 2003.

Throughout this concert of Russian ‘firsts’ and ‘lasts’, the confidence and trust shared by Jansons and his players were remarkable. Whether his baton was neatly indicating a cue, coaxing a solo or resting – pointing downwards while Jansons’ eyes, swaying shoulders and encouraging gestures guided the BRSO – absolute and unwavering understanding and companionship underpinned the mutual music-making.

The year 1917 could not have been an easy one for a Russian composer to concentrate on his work, but for the twenty-six-year-old Prokofiev it was a productive year: the first Violin Concerto, the third and fourth Piano Sonatas, and the Visions fugitives for piano date from this year during which Prokofiev toured extensively, perhaps to escape the political turmoil and tumult in Russia.

With the present so turbulent and the future so uncertain, in his Classical Symphony Prokofiev looked back to the past, most specifically to Haydn. Jansons’ tempi were fairly steady and this allowed us to appreciate the clarity and formality of Prokofiev’s faux classicism; textures were airy and the overall effect was balletic. But, while the sudden changes in volume and wry juxtapositions were all neatly effected, what was lacking was a sense of Haydn’s humour and whimsy or Prokofiev’s own renegade spirit.

In the Allegro we could appreciate the way the orchestra’s sound glows, from the bottom upwards, in the explosive ‘Manheim Rocket’ with which the work opens. The Larghetto was elegant and the strings shone in the stratosphere. The massed weight that the BRSO can summon was hinted at in the lurching Gavotte, and the ungainly octave leaps in the melody and parodic grace notes in the bassoon were presented with polish. The fleet Finale, which is practically a virtuoso concerto for each of the orchestral sections, for once sounded assured rather than panicked. But the wry piquancy of Prokofiev’s blend of grace and clumsiness proved elusive; Jansons smiled a lot but his good humour did not seem to infuse into his players who remained rather severe of demeanour even as the applause echoed warmly.

While Prokofiev’s First Symphony does not hint at the creative directions the composer was to take subsequently, Shostakovich’s First Symphony in F minor Op.10 – a work written by the eighteen-year-old composer as a graduation piece to complete his studies at the Leningrad Conservatory – is stamped with what were to become the composer’s trademarks. There are heavy helpings of sarcasm and wit alongside quasi-Mahlerian contemplation and Brahmsian Romantic passion.

Even though the BRSO ranks were now considerably swelled, Jansons once again created razor sharp textures in the first movement, facilitating eloquent dialogues between individual instruments – solo bassoon and trumpet, for example – enabling us to enjoy the superb artistry and skill of the BRSO’s principals. The diverse material was made to cohere neatly; the waltz-like episode emerged naturally, the flute’s theme singing sonorously. The piano made a zesty contribution in the high-spirited Scherzo – reminding us that Shostakovich had worked as a pianist in local cinemas, apparently often laughing so much that he had had to stop playing – but the repetitive percussion gestures of the Trio tempered the boisterousness with eeriness. What was most impressive was not the theatricality or beauty of individual moments – though these were impressive enough, including some lovely oboe and solo cello playing in the Lento – but the way Jansons made the passing sights come together in a purposeful journey to an inevitable destination. The riotous coda to the schizophrenic Finale pounded with the kind of orchestral bombast that we know so well from the Leningrad and other symphonies which speak of ‘public’ concerns.

It was after the interval that the concert really caught fire, though, in Rachmaninov’s final work, the Symphonic Dances of 1940. Just as Shostakovich’s First Symphony seems to anticipate the future, so Rachmaninov here seems to review the past. The coda of the first dance quotes the opening theme of the First Symphony, the greatest failure of Rachmaninov’s career; the Finale includes a chant from the Russian Orthodox liturgy as well as the Dies irae from the Mass for the Dead, which the composer so hauntingly quotes in his Vespers.

Rachmaninov originally referred to the work, completed initially in piano score, as his Fantastic Dances; but the process of orchestration undoubted made the dances truly symphonic and the string players of the BRSO revelled in the diverse demands made upon them, playing with fiery vigour at the start of the sinister first dance; with gorgeous sheen at the close of that movement, accompanied by the glistening blend of flute, piccolo, harp, piano, and orchestra bells; and with ghostly ethereality in the following waltz. The alto saxophone solo managed to be simultaneously sensuous and spiritual, imbued with what we feel, but cannot define, as ‘Russianness’. The waltz movement that follows had a dark tint to its lilt – none of the breeziness of the Viennese – while the final dance swept forward with fatalistic fervour, a veritable witches’ Sabbath of which Berlioz would have been proud.

Jansons looked drained at the end of the concert. Health concerns led him to stand down as Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2015, almost twenty years after he had almost died on stage in Oslo from a heart attack while conducting the final pages of Puccini’s La bohème. But, Jansons’ dedication, to the music and to the BRSO, were evident throughout this performance. He pushed himself hard, and his knowledge and attention to detail were striking. And, he was eager to offer more. We had two encores: an arrangement of Schubert’s F minor Moment musical which showed off the strings’ delicacy, and a rumbustious Slavonic Dance to bring a wonderful evening to a close.

Claire Seymour

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