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Playful with Mariss Jansons' Toy

Mariss Jansons in actionThe Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam under one of the finest conductors of our day, Mariss Jansons, hit Washington, D.C., on their two cities–three concerts mini-tour of the U.S.A.; all courtesy of WPAS. With them they brought a program that, on paper, may not have been the stuff one’s dreams are made of. Instead of completely indulging us with an “event” such as would have been a Mahler symphony – or Bruckner or Shostakovich (of which the RCO plays a complete cycle this year: oh, to live in Amsterdam) – they opted for a Haydn symphony of all things and the sumptuous, big Heldenleben, which isn’t exactly standard fare in these latitudes, either. Not just to be contrarian, Ionarts had argued that that was in fact the strength of the concert: to hear classical repertoire superbly done by a large, traditional orchestra more associated with the big, heavy-hitting Romantics. Along the same lines of thinking, we were hoping that attendance be made mandatory for every NSO (and BSO) member. In all humility: we were right – and we hope that, apart from the concertmaster, a few more members of the local band got to enjoy one of the most riveting displays of orchestral control and color we have heard.

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J. Haydn, 12 London Symphonies ,
E.Jochum / LSO

To call the Concertgebouw’s Haydn “old-fashioned” because most of the strings are summoned for it might be correct – but only in a very meaningless way. The performance made the point that great Haydn is best measured in how light the orchestra can tip-toe across the staves, how gay its jump, how moving its performance; not how close an orchestra comes to the limitation-bound Esterhazy or London orchestras of Haydn or whether gut strings are used or not. I love hearing good HIP (Historically Informed Performance practice) orchestras in this repertoire, but a full-bodied orchestra doing this really well (difficult as that is without muddying everything) sounds glorious in concert, glows. Instead of obscuring or blaring or trampling on the notes and textures, a richness comes into play - and never so at the cost of agility. Rather than merely adding a darkening, dulling varnish of the symphony, they offered genuine sumptuousness and extra color.

The Concertgebouw’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (“Surprise”) was exactly such a performance. It may well have been a performance as any other in Amsterdam or Vienna, Berlin or Munich… but given the dearth of that repertoire here, it was very special, indeed. As Charles has mentioned, the nickname is not as obvious as we’d have it – the surprise is not (pace Eric Bromberger, who claims so in the program notes) the ‘wake-up’ fortissimo at the end of the ditty that makes the Adagio but the mentioned timpani blast in the fourth movement. The slow movement, though, is lovely and funny in its own right; based on a simple folk tune that Haydn (and all his contemporaries in the German-speaking lands) knew – about walking up and down the alleyway and picking plums.

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R. Strauss, Heldenleben,
M.Jansons / RCO
RCO Live

Very special, too, to hear the orchestra with perhaps the most recognizable ‘house-sound’, and the richest woodwind section there is, in a work specifically set out to show off all these colors and abilities. Ein Heldenleben is something that European audiences have more difficulties avoiding than hearing in any given year, but here we don’t often come across it. (I only know of Yuri Temirkanov having done it once in recent years.) Just like on his RCO live recording, Mariss Jansons used the work to show off all the aforementioned qualities of his orchestra. As a result of it, the lyrical moments towards the end of the work are unparalleled, the ribbed structure of the “Hero” and his subsequent musical mentions not as pronounced as they are in other interpretations. On interpretation, my allegiance is with those who drive the music a little harder, tauter – a hero with a six-pack, not that little soft flab around its belly. But as pure sound was concerned, I could bask in the glow of Jansons’ sun forever.

The concertmaster’s solos in this work are such that they make every back-bencher glad they’re not it – and every soloist wish they were, for a night. Vesko Eschkenazy performed them impeccably.

With enthusiastic and prolonged applause, the audience earned itself an encore: to hear a Heldenleben-sized string section play a Haydn Andante cantabile with endless delicacy, softer and softer to a point where they were less audible than a single violin could be – and in absolute perfect unison – was stunning, even a gratuitous show of ability. Jansons, smiling from one ear to another, must have delighted in this, too: “I have a great toy, and look what I can make it do!” The RCO left the bar awfully high, for other orchestras to play in their wake. And they left a hall of Washingtonians with memories of a concert that will last for many years.