Twelve years ago Mariss Jansons brought the rejuvenated Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra to the Proms. Their program? Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius.
Now, five years into his directorship of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, he revived the same coupling of the two works, standing on the cusp of late Romanticism and 20th century modernity.
It soon became clear in the Strauss that Jansons intended to press on and keep things moving, with an almost perfunctory introduction negotiated quickly and without the Royal Albert Hall organ, the substitute presumably closer to the orchestra’s tuning pitch.
Thereafter the tension between Strauss’s portrayal of nature (the key of C major) and man (B major) was expertly played out. The brief intermission of the silky eighteen-part hymn for strings tugged at the emotions, though the more playful music of the Viennese waltz was relatively straight faced.
There was however a lovely reedy sound to the lower strings and wind as they executed the subterranean fugal episode with an impressive clarity, thankfully undeterred by a fusillade of coughing that happily stayed absent from the carefully crafted final bars.
A commanding performance of the Sibelius reached the heights after the interval. What impressed most about this performance was the fluidity both of the music and the orchestra, first evident in a tightly controlled opening movement that gradually unleashed more power as it moved on from the graceful opening.
Jansons clearly has the proportions of this work to a tee, and only in the Andante‘s early stages was this threatened by a brief clash of tempi between cello and wind. Come the climactic moments from the brass, parity had been fully restored, and the scherzo took off in a flurry of notes from the strings, still carefully directed and defined.
There was a lovely moment as the heroic main theme of the finale took hold, with Jansons practically standing back to enjoy the sound of his orchestra before assuming control once more for the onward and irrepressible drive to the finish.
As generous and well deserved encores the orchestra gave a poised and moving Valse Triste before going hell for leather in the closing section of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin suite. The packed hall ensured they were amply rewarded.