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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jansons, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jansons, Barbican Hall

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jansons, Barbican Hall

The conductor looked exhausted, but his Amsterdam orchestra still make beautiful music

Maestro Jansons: out of puff

I half expected to hear someone on the platform call out “Is there a doctor in the house?” For Mariss Jansons, principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and esteemed beyond measure, didn’t look well during this concert, the second in the orchestra’s current Barbican residency. Drained from his exertions during Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, he left the platform weary and grey. The following interval was seriously extended.

The next piece, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, he didn’t conduct at all, leaving the 23 string players to wing it alone with a wink, a nod, and as many waves as possible from the leader Vesko Eschkenazy’s bow. Finally returning for Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier suite, he beseeched the orchestra in his usual fashion with baton swirls and grins, but finished grim-faced, out of puff. No wonder there wasn’t an encore.

Yet whether the problem was a passing bug or something worse from a conductor brought to the brink of death on the job with a heart attack in 1996, it hardly affected the music-making. If anything interfered with the orchestra’s glories – its clarity, finesse, individual timbres, mellow warmth – the finger points to the Barbican acoustic, dog-biscuit dry next to the Concertgebouw's in Amsterdam. A high-calorie evening of Richard Strauss’s music needs a resonance with a voluptuous touch, and we didn’t get that, especially in those Rosenkavalier chunks, where the blowzy brass in the loudest climaxes paraded themselves like painted old tarts cruising the waterfront. 

Multiple sonic delights rose from a platform so crowded that there seemed scarcely room for another flute

The playing, though, was still magnificent, and most of the programme’s thrills carried over in the Barbican Hall’s antiseptic atmosphere. You could argue that Zarathustra actually benefitted in one respect: in a score of teeming, intricate textures we could hear every layer, polished into verdant glory by the orchestra’s cultivated skills and Jansons’ intuitive grasp of the music’s kaleidoscope. Nietzsche’s odious philosophical theories and his Superman, the tone poem’s springboard, twiddled their thumbs; what mattered here were the multiple sonic delights rising from a platform so crowded that there seemed scarcely room for another flute. The athletic fury of the double-basses, plunging upwards from the depths; the woodwinds’ tendril lines and avian song; Eschkenazy’s airily waltzing solo violin: all these were magnificent. Then, of course, there was the 2001: A Space Odyssey sun, rising at the start with heraldic trumpets and heaving chords: a moment only weakened by the feeble rumble of the Barbican’s portable organ, an instrument I’d like to shoot.

Metamorphosen was almost as memorable. Conductorless but never flinching, the players wove a succulent web of sound in this aching threnody for a world of German culture destroyed in Hitler’s firestorm. An extra bloom on the sound would have been nice, along with a firmer stamp of personality, hard to achieve when there's no boss in charge. Yet even if slightly diluted, the power of the work’s sorrowful polyphony still hit home in the heart and the pit of the stomach. The beauty of phrasing, the golden tone: I felt I could listen to these musicians for hours. That wasn’t quite so in the Rosenkavalier suite, though that’s mostly because the suite’s arrangement, probably the work of the New York Philharmonic’s conductor Artur Rodziński, is so gaudy and clumsy. Who could resist those tunes, though, or the orchestra’s rapturous lilt in a waltz?  

As to whether an entire programme of Strauss was healthy and advisable, for both Jansons and us – well, Jansons did have the sense to choose three works offering three different atmospheres, different sound worlds. And would you rather have jettisoned any of them for some baffling product of the Dutch avant-garde? I thought not. There’s more from this peerless orchestra at the Barbican on 20 May, when Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner.


For the record, while my father, Artur Rodzinski, was the music director of the New York Philharmonic he asked his assistant, Leonard Bernstein to make a concert arrangement of the Rosenkavalier waltzes. It is Mr. Bernstein who should be receiving the credit for this piece.

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