Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra visit New York with Bartók, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Bruckner, with Leonidas Kavakos

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Mariss Jansons

Mariss Jansons

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor
Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | 8 PM
Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 2
Leonidas Kavakos, Violin
Mahler – Symphony No. 1

Thursday, February 14, 2013 | 8 PM
R. Strauss – Death and Transfiguration
Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 (Edition Nowak)

When the Concertgebouw play at Carnegie, it is hard to imagine that any other orchestra could be as good or better. Then we hear Vienna and Dresden (we we shall this season), and we realize that the great Central European orchestras flourish in spheres all their own, and that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to rank them. Still, when it comes to communicating what a composer wrote, rather than a particular tradition of playing, the Concertgebouw remain unsurpassed. And if one refers back to the magnificent legacy of recorded performances under conductors associated with other orchestras—Walter, Klemperer, Szell, Monteux, and others—one consistently finds that their performances with the Concertgebouw represent their very best work. This year’s visit went right to the mark. Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons opted for composers and specific works intimately associated with the orchestra for generations. Above all, Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto received its premiere with the Concertgebouw under Mengelberg in 1939, Zoltán Székely playing the solo part. Of past music directors, Van Beinum and Haitink have been especially prized Brucknerians, and Mengelberg himself was one of the great champions of Mahler, followed by Haitink, Chailly, and now Jansons.

Whenever I find myself caught in my own Mahler-Angst, which amounts to scepticism about the ultimate quality of his symphonies, Mariss Jansons faithfully comes to the rescue—mine, of course, not Mahler’s. As few years ago, put off by an over-refined reading of Mahler’s Third by James Levine, Jansons’ performance at the last Carnegie visit by the orchestra set me straight, to a large degree. It was a marvellous occasion, which brought out the knottiness and genius of Mahler’s far from facile writing. Now he arrives in New York with Mahler’s First, which, as one of the most accessible of the symphonies, is performed too often, and I was pretty much sated with it after an especially successful performance by the BSO under Levine a few years ago.

Jansons’ approach went entirely against the grain of usual performance practice in this work. Conductors usually concentrate on its attractive tunes and its uplifting flow from chiaroscuro to brilliant light, and in the process they create a flow which conceals the difficulty the young Mahler had in writing his first symphony and the awkwardness of many moments in it—an awkwardness we find also in his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies as well, either because the mature Mahler had limited time to work on them, or perhaps because conductors and listeners haven’t fully understood his aims. (Go to Boulez for those symphonies…but don’t forget Horenstein, Szell, and Barbirolli.) Jansons seemed to have lifted up the lid on the First Symphony and to have peered into its inner workings, carefully considering just what the composer was experiencing in writing it. As a result, he has turned the writing on its head. The recurring motifs, which appear as landmarks of little structural significance in most performances, seeming to be haphazardly managed Wagnerian Leitmotive, were transformed into thematic material which recurs with different characters and functions in different contexts. What an fascinating, essentially modern technique in composition! For once I heard what was truly innovative in the work—clumsy and redundant at times, but like Sibelius’s work at the same time, brilliant and risky! The shape of the symphony changed at a fundamental level in Jansons’ interpretation—from an expansive and somewhat messy sonata form into an even messier, but more original episodic fabric, which Mahler just managed to squeeze into sonata form. The source for this would clearly be Wagner’s Leitmotiv system.

In order to achieve this Jansons had what he needed in the Concertgebouw, which he has led since 2004 and which has cultivated clean, lucid textures at least since Mengelberg’s time (1895-1945). Hence the performance was exceptionally detailed. The tempi in all four movements tended towards breadth, allowing details to come through and avoiding the obscuration of Mahler’s form—or lack of it—in the forward sweep. This was basically an analytical performance with plenty of expression and fire concentrated in the moment, as well as more sensual beauty than, say, Klemperer would have allowed. As I have mentioned in an earlier review, the Concertgebouw sound under Janson seems darker than any of his predecessors, as if to compensate for the controversial brighter timbre Chailly introduced during his tenure (1988-2004). In the way Jansons was able to produced extraordinary clarity without thinning out the sound.

The first half of the program was in contrast devoted to a work of meticulous construction, a product of the height of modernism, which, written as it was on the eve of the Second World War, was pulsing with a nostalgic Romanticism that brought back less anxious times—a dream of the Hungarian out-of-doors and free-ranging feelings which dwell both in the intimacy of human interior life and in the composer’s response to people, folk music, and landscape. A disagreement between Bartók and Zoltán Székely, the violinist who commissioned the work, brought about a marvel of double construction. Bartók originally wanted to write the entire concerto as a set of variations, but Székeley insisted on a traditional three-movement form. Bartók had his way, however, in the second movement, which is in fact a set of variations, and in the last, in which the thematic material consists of variations on that of the first movement. As if to assert discreetly the concerto’s modernist credentials, the second subject of the first movement is a twelve-note tone row—albeit without any noticeable reference to Schoenberg’s harmonic idiom. Leonidas Kavakos took up the violin solo, using his long arms to spin out long, seamless swaths of melody. His tone is both brilliant and sumptuous, but he never really draws our attention to it; and his technique is so supremely developed that his playing seems understated. Bartók’s concerto could not have been more beautifully played. Kavakos acknowledged the ovations he received with the Allemande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata in E Minor, Op. 27, No. 4—another nostalgic work in its own way, but in this case back to the solo violin works of J. S. Bach. Kavakos’ performance of it was mesmerizing.

The Concertgebouw’s second concert began with Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration in a full-scale and full-blooded reading. As in the Mahler, Jansons was able to produce playing from his musicians of unusual clarity without sacrificing body or suggestive color. Gravitating toward broader tempi, he was able to delve into the moment in the different sections of the piece—the suffering brought on by the illness, the hours of dying, and the memories emerging from the past. Jansons gave us time and space to contemplate the various elements of the work and their dramatic interrelationships.

After the vivid gestures of the Strauss, Jansons’ contained, rational approach to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony came as something of a surprise, but it was entirely in the spirit of the Mahler First and was a typical—and outstanding—example of a mainstream performance tradition in Bruckner, in which otherworldly tone colors and mystically dragging tempi are downplayed in favor of a tight, disciplined approach, in which slightly faster, consistent tempi and well-defined phrasing set the work firmly in the realm of the Romantic symphony. Distinguished Brucknerians from Karl Böhm to Herbert Blomstedt and Marek Janowski belong to this interpretative stream. The music was also brought down to earth by a specificity of timbre—a desire to bring out the individual qualities of the sections and the individual players in the Concertgebouw, which is quite unlike that of former Chief Conductor, Bernard Haitink, whose Bruckner has been highly prized for years, striving as he has for a more homogenized, otherworldly sound.

The slow movement, was indeed “sehr feierlich und sehr langsam,” although not in the slowest tempo I have heard. It came near to the loftiest feeling one can expect from this movement in its grandeur, while remaining well-rooted on Earth. The scherzo was rather broad in tempo, giving Jansons the opportunity to explore the grat variety of moods and colors in the movement. The character of the finale, “bewegt, doch nicht schnell,” reaffirmed the good sense of Jansons’ approach. The music is both genial and joyful—not as transcendant as the finale of the Eighth—but a grand conclusion to one of the most expansive of Romantic symphonies. The textures were always extremely detailed, and I heard some lines I had never heard so clearly before. The fortissimo tuttu at the conclusion were magnificent in the Carnegie acoustic. This was fine traditional Bruckner with exceptional color and detail—a resplendent conclusion to a highly satisfying visit by this great orchestra and its more than worthy Chief Conductor.

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.