Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BRSO/Jansons @ Royal Festival Hall, London

29 March 2009

Mariss Jansons’ concerts with his Bavarian band are always a cause for celebration, but their latest offering at the south bank was a corker.

In particular German soprano Anja Harteros was thrilling in Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

Anja Harteros is a far too infrequent visitor to these shores. Despite winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1999 she only made her British stage debut last year when she substituted for Nina Stemme as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. Audiences and critics alike were grasping for superlatives she was quite simply stunning. Her repertoire is wide-ranging, so it’s something of a scandal that she’s been virtually ignored in this country. A major exponent of Strauss in most of the major European houses this appearance with the BRSO was one to relish.

Nor did she disappoint. Her creamy soprano has wonderfully dusky undertones, her breath control is remarkable and she brought a translucent quality to Strauss’ word-painting throughout. She has a unique way of drawing the listener into what was a quite movingly-introverted interpretation of these glorious valedictory songs. True there were a couple of problems with tuning, but they paled into significance next to such an achingly beautiful performance. Jansons provided admirable support and kept the songs moving at a sensible pace which meant that melancholy and the sense of loss were not sacrificed for cloying sentimentality as can often happen.

The Strauss was followed by an ecstatic performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite no. 2, in which every section of the orchestra shone. Jansons achieved miracles of clarity within the orchestral texture which allowed the audience to revel in Ravel’s kaleidoscopic palette of orchestral colours. Few, if any, composers can rival Ravel’s ear for orchestration and despite having heard this work several times in the last year or so this performance was quite simply head and shoulders above the rest. From the gossamer-like strings that ushered in the dawn through to the frenzy of celebration at its close, this was throughout a sensational performance.

For me the least successful part of the concert was the performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in the first half. The sound was too ‘fat’ for my liking, but the playing was still impressive, even though speeds were on the slow side especially if you’re used to period performances of this work.

The flexibility of the Bavarian players was highlighted in two encores, first a luminescent account of ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Peer Gynt and then, as Jansons told us from the podium, ‘Vild Bearz’ from Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite no. 2 where the pinpoint accuracy and virtuosity of the percussion and brass sections was quite simply breathtaking. One awaits the return of the Bavarians with impatience.

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