Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam/Jansons @ Barbican Hall, London

11, 12 February 2007

The Amsterdam Concertgebouw hardly needs an introduction it is of course one of the great orchestras of the world and its two concerts at the Barbican complemented each other delightfully.

The performance on Saturday evening paired two Third Symphonies; those of Schubert and Bruckner.

The latter work in particular was given a treatment of the highest passion, providing clear demonstration of why Mariss Jansons is held in such esteem in this repertoire.

The merits and failings of the 1889 version can, and have been, heavily debated, but Jansons brought commanding oversight and belief to the performance. The architecture of the first movement was stunning, with every change of pace, every juxtaposition of themes, moulded into an overriding, slow burning vision. The emphatic, gritty rhythms of the Scherzo thrilled; the Trio‘s organic balance of parts compensated for a slightly slow tempo. The Adagio‘s instrumental balance was more questionable, with incredibly overbearing low strings at its opening and violins overpowering the violas’ love song. But then the sweep of orchestral warmth carried all before it. And if the Finale did run away with itself at one moment, it condensed again for the most exciting and perfectly hued final tutti.

While the Concertgebouw is famed for its opulence and luxury of sound, what impressed most in Schubert’s Third Symphony was the clarity and dexterity of the playing. It boasted the precision of a period band, while each section concentrated on purity of tone and firmness of touch. Parts that can otherwise be subsumed under orchestral grandeur emerged from the texture flutes in the third movement, for example, rose manfully above the orchestra. Balances were magical and phrasing was particularly smart in the woodwind section. A little more humour could have been injected, but its absence was no great loss.

Sunday afternoon’s concert was a strange selection of smaller morsels, though there was still an immense amount to enjoy (especially a highly refined encore of the Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo). The opener, Berlioz’s overture to Le Carnaval Romain, was propulsive and luxurious, with an intelligent ebb and flow in the conducting producing thrilling surges in the carnival music.

Debussy’s La Mer was similarly exciting, especially in the stormy chromatics of the third movement. Woodwind solos in the first movement were superb (indeed, this orchestra boasts some of the most characterful woodwind playing that I have heard in a while), and here themes were interchanged between groups with flawless precision and imagination. The extraordinary second movement was a bed of instrumental virtuosity, with only some smudged violin trills detracting. The two harps found immense poignancy while the cor anglais phrased with unfailing musicality. Ravel’s La valse was also vibrant, with climaxes producing a firm metallic quality that is rare to find today. The work’s dark humour was well conveyed, though the vehemence of the second half was a tad too jaunty.

And the best orchestral playing came during Berio’s Folk Songs the often minimal accompaniments demand much from soloists, and moments such as the woodwind coda of I wonder as I wander created a great hush around the hall. This was just as well, for Elina Garanca gave a pretty rough and ready performance of the set. Phrasing was often pretty, diction was good (though wonder and wander in the aforementioned song sounded exactly the same), the extended decorations of Lo fiolaire were floated off with sultry ease. However, the voice is not particularly pleasant or evenly balanced, and poor projection results in too much being lost. Then again, Berio demands a lot from his singer, and Garanca made a fair stab at the inconsiderately low writing of A la femminisca and the tongue twisters of Ballo.

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