Mariss Jansons leads the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Janine Jansen at Carnegie Hall in Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Mahler

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Mariss Janssons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Janssons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor
Janine Jansen, Violin

Sibelius, Violin Concerto
Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 8 PM
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor
Jill Grove, Mezzo-Soprano

New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt, Chorus Director
The American Boychoir
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Music Director

Mahler, Symphony No. 3

For many years, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has been renowned for its “burnished sound.” This means that its strings, woodwinds, and brass, basically dark in timbre in the central European tradition, exhibit lustrous, but not brilliant highlights. During his tenure, Riccardo Chailly, who has lately been prominent on the Review as Music Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, is said to have pushed the Orchestra toward a more brilliant, harder timbre, in keeping with his enthusiasm for modern and contemporary music. (It is worth noting that he shares this interest with many of the RCO’s Music Directors and that, since taking over the Gewandhaus, he has focused on cultivating its traditional dark sonority.) This change displeased many admirers of the orchestra, and I’m sure many of the New Yorkers who attended these two concerts at Carnegie Hall, went in keen anticipation of of checking the Concertgebouw’s development under Mariss Jansons. As I heard it, the sound is indeed darker, but it is hardly a return to the glow of Bernard Haitink’s days. I’d say the burnished lustre is gone in favor of a darker sound: a gently gritty texture, which suggests not so much burnished gold as the unpolished bronze or brass one might see in a precious medieval object, which has been maintained in a cared-for, but studiously original state. There are few blazing highlights, and the surface is dull, but rich in color and texture. For my part, I was delighted with this, not only for its own pleasing qualities, but for what it does for clarity and variety of texture in complex passages or blended tutti—which were plentiful in this judiciaously programmed pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall.

As a conductor, Mariss Jansons is not only versatile, but able to show different characters, depending on his purposes, ranging from the understated to the brilliant and exuberant. In each of the three late romantic works in the two concerts he had a clear idea of how he wanted to apply the best qualities of his orchestra. None of these pieces, no matter how much they may be admired, are especially esteemed for their economy and structural clarity, but in each case, Jansons found a true, organic solution to the composer’s aims.

Janine Jansen. Photo Felix Broede.

Janine Jansen. Photo Felix Broede.

Janine Jansen is surely one of the most intelligent and mature of an especially gifted generation of violinists, and her performance of the Sibelius concerto was not only technically brilliant, rich in timbre, and deeply moving, but it showed a remarkable insight into how the work was put together. She began with what was basically an episodic approach. The movements fell into sections, which were unified more by coherent shifts of mood and key, as well as the long line of the melodies. Ms. Jansen, a tall, long-armed woman, made the most of her physical gift in drawing both the line and the episodes into arching units. With this formal support, she was able to pour herself into the emotional texture of each episode, as well as to focus on the beautifully wrought details of the virtuoso passages. Her technical command of her 1727 “Barrere” Stradivarius (on extended loan from the Elise Mathilde Fund) is such that she could focus on the qualities of the writing rather than the display of her own virtuosity. Maestro Jansons was entirely at one with her throughout. Ms. Jansen’s sound is not overly large, hence he held back the orchestra to give her plenty of dynamic space and to leave reserves for the final climax. In this his default mode was understatement. While it never intruded on the soloist, the orchestral accompaniment was rich in splendid dusky colors and textures.

As an encore, Ms. Jansen joined Concertgebouw Orchestra Concertmaster Vesko Eschkenazy in an eloquent performance of the Commodo (quasi Allegretto) from PRokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op. 56.

Mariss Jansons has enjoyed a high reputation as a Rachmaninoff interpeter for many years, and he brought this mastery and confidence to the composer’s sprawling Second Symphony, which was played with few, if any, cuts. He knew better than to attempt to resist Rachmaninoff’s sometimes expansive, sometimes discursive, even wandering exploration of Tchaikovskian gestures and personal emotions. His comfort with understatement not only proclaimed his confidence, it avoided most the symphony’s tendency towards bombast. The textures were thicker than Sibelius’ and the timbre of the massed strings and brass a bit brighter, but meticulously rendered details consistently came through. I found the performance entirely persuasive and stirring in the end, and I can confidently assert that I’ve never heard quite so much of Rachmaninoff’s writing, both on temporal and orchestral axes.

Maestro Jansons and the RCO followed this with an encore, Sibelius’ Valse Triste, in a beautifully paced and balanced performance. This brought out the best qualities of the music without sentimentality and served as a fine display piece for the orchestra.

On the second evening Jansons turned to Mahler’s ambitious Third Symphony, which often strikes me as too ambitious for its own good. The cliché “vast musical landscape” decribes it well, encompassing as it does a sense of landscape and its vast reach, as well as a wealth of musical styles, ranging from the grand symphonic rhetoric to street music—military bands, intinerant Jewish fiddlers, etc.—to a kitschy children’s chorus. This seemingly indiscriminate gathering of familiar elements is redeemed not so much by Mahler’s famous irony as by his genuine enthusiasm as a collector of the aural world that surrounded him. The Third Symphony in particular reflects the vastness and diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its melting-pot of Germanic, Magyar, Slavic, Semitic, and Gypsy elements. At military exercises, commands from the top were communicated by a company of interpreters, who shouted out a patchwork of languages. As a converted Jew from Moravia, Mahler was in a special position to appreciate this cultural diversity.

As in the Rachmaninoff, Jansons made no attempt to contain Mahler’s tendencies to sprawl, relying on a flowing pace, dramatic contrasts, and consistency of color to maintain a unifying focus. However, as for Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, the essence of the performance remained in the wealth of detail which Jansons and the orchestra executed with such care and taste. This work gave the greatest scope for sonic display, and the results were as impressive as ever with this great orchestra, although Maestro Jansons never allowed it to distract us from the music itself. Jill Grove sang impeccably, encompassing bright as well as dark colors in her voice, and the choral forces, benefitting from smaller numbers than in Levine’s Tanglewood performance a few years ago, were right on the mark in terms of color and interaction with the orchestra. I enjoyed the performance immensely and felt more at ease with Mahler’s Third than in quite a while.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.