Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jansons @ Royal Festival Hall, London

29 November 2008

A group of international music critics recently voted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra into sixth place on a list of the world’s great orchestras.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

This concert provided Londoners the opportunity to hear the orchestra performing the music of Mozart and Bruckner under their Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons.

Mozart’s Symphony 36 has the nickname Linz from the city where it was premiered in 1783. Despite the use of a moderately large string section of 40 players for a work of this period, Jansons carefully maintained balances throughout, allowing the excellent woodwind playing to shine through. The first movement, taken at a fairly brisk pace, had an engaging sense of vitality, while the Andante deployed cultivated string playing and elegant phrasing to good effect. Slightly surprisingly, Jansons omitted the Andante‘s exposition repeat, which was something of a pity given the delightful results here.

The Menuetto maintained the quality of the earlier movements, with characterful performances by the oboe and bassoon in the Trio. The final movement combined singing lyricism with coursing energy, and throughout the performance there was a feeling of the orchestra taking pleasure in their collective music making.

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony has one of the most arresting openings in the symphonic repertoire, and here the playing of the opening horn call was not only beautiful but conveyed a sense of the primordial. However, the first tutti came and went without generating much tension, and a lack of thrust was a feature of the movement as a whole. During climaxes, Jansons occasionally stopped beating time and stood with arms outstretched, a dramatic gesture perhaps, but one which did little to bring any additional excitement to the playing.

The Andante benefited from lovely phrasing and sonorous tone painting, but the pacing did not escape a feeling of lethargy, and the movement’s two climaxes were insufficiently involving. The Scherzo was also disappointing, the playing too smooth and refined to be genuinely exciting. The failure of the horns to emerge from the wash of sound in the last few bars before the start of the Trio was just one example of why the performance lacked a sense of drive.

The final movement featured numerous interesting felicities of sonority and detail (antiphonal violins very welcome here), but rugged power and onward momentum were not part of the journey. Occasionally, the brass were too loud, partly a result of there being four trumpets as opposed to the three specified by Bruckner. More disappointing was Jansons’ inclusion of a cymbal crash near the beginning of the movement. Although distinguished Bruckner conductors of yesteryear such as Jochum and Karajan used to insert a cymbal crash in their interpretations, it does not originate with the composer and has no place in a modern performance of the symphony.

All in all, the Bruckner performance was as disappointing as the Mozart performance was impressive. It is only fair to mention, however, that a small proportion of the audience thought the concert sufficiently good overall to warrant a standing ovation.

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