BBC Proms reviews

Prom 62: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons @ Royal Albert Hall, London

1 September 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Recently voted the finest orchestra in the world in a Gramophone magazine readership survey, The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s second Proms appearance featured works by Haydn and Shostakovich under their principal conductor Mariss Jansons.

This concert consisted of two works, Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major, ‘Military’ and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor. In the Haydn the playing was everything one would expect from this fine Dutch orchestra; beautifully rich string tone, impeccably nuanced woodwind solos all underpinned by a rotund brass sound. And as this symphony contains a special military contingent courtesy of the percussion department, the measured tread towards war came across in a properly jingoistic fashion. They left the platform halfway through to march back on in the final movement – an appropriate touch. Jansons drew fine playing from all sections of the orchestra although there wasn’t even the slightest nod towards period performance practice – the strings played with vibrato, so hearing such a big, unabashed Romantic sound in Haydn was very disconcerting.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor is one of the composer’s most hotly debated works. Coming as it does not long after Stalin’s death, there are many commentators that would have us believe that the work is a commentary on Stalin’s dictatorship. Certainly in the brooding melancholic first movement Shostakovich creates an ambience of suffering, which is released in an energetic, savage scherzo – Stalin himself in musical form? Maybe – and if the third and fourth movements are more introspective there can be no denying the jubilation which concludes the symphony.

This symphony was given an outstanding interpretation by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at last year’s Proms, and the Royal Concertgebouw certainly had a hard act to follow. There could be no quibbles about the quality of the playing of their Dutch counterparts, but emotionally there was a vacuum at the heart of the work. Maybe this was due to Jansons’ over-deliberate tempi – the Scherzo should have a biting sardonic-edge to it, but the tempo he adopted was on the leisurely side and thus the movement failed to ignite. Throughout, it felt that he was putting his foot on the brakes, so that the first movement almost ground to halt at the climax whilst there wasn’t enough energy in the third or final movements. Brilliant playing, but ultimately lacking in soul.

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