Opera + Classical Music Reviews

RCO/Jansons @ Barbican Hall, London

13 December 2009

For most of its 121 years, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has been regarded as one of the world’s finest ensembles.

It is therefore excellent news that the RCO is among a small number of overseas orchestras that have signed up for a series of residencies at the Barbican Centre.

Other orchestras scheduled to visit include the New York Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Royal Concertgebouw has been associated with the music of Mahler since the composer befriended the orchestra’s second Principal Conductor, Willem Mengelberg, over a century ago. In this performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the orchestra’s class was apparent in such areas as the expressiveness of the strings, the power and sensitivity of the brass (not an easy feat in the Barbican acoustic), and the superb unanimity of ensemble. Individual solos, notably from first violin and oboe, were poised and eloquent, and the percussion section delivered some splendid sounds from the likes of tam tam and bells.

Mariss Jansons, the orchestra’s sixth Principal Conductor, conducted an interpretation which was carefully prepared and strong on detail. Mahler’s request for a five minute pause after the first movement was fully observed, and the antiphonal placement of offstage brass was hauntingly atmospheric. Given the care given to such details, however, the lack of antiphonal violins was something of a surprise, and I would be interested to know the reasoning for the use of the offstage brass in the fourth movement song, Urlicht.

These details were relatively insignificant, however, given that I generally found Jansons’s interpretation too controlled for the likes of Mahler’s ambitious canvas. The symphony needs a conductor who can reach beyond the notes to convey a sense spiritual affirmation and a feeling that apocalypse is just around the corner. By contrast, this was a performance where spontaneity and daring took second place to precision and restraint, an appropriate response in some pieces, but not so helpful in this epic work.

On the positive side, the performance benefited from notable contributions by the mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and the soprano Ricarda Merbeth, while the London Symphony Chorus, singing from memory, delivered a fervent and moving contribution to the closing stages of the finale.

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