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Concertgebouw Returns, This Time with Mahler

We all owe Washington Performing Arts Society our gratitude for bringing the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest from Amsterdam every couple of years. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, one wishes sometimes that we could have more than just a single night -- why not all three concerts the group will perform this week at Carnegie Hall? (Pity the National Symphony, which has to follow that act on Thursday.) So, although we may not have had the chance to hear Latvian-born conductor Mariss Jansons conduct Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique or Otto Ketting's De aankomst ("The Arrival"), Sunday afternoon's concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall offered two of the orchestra and Jansons' specialties, Strauss and Mahler.

available at Amazon
Strauss Tone Poems / Haitink

available at Amazon
Mahler 5 / Haitink
At the last WPAS concert by the orchestra of the Royal Concertgebouw, in February 2006, the Strauss offering was Ein Heldenleben. This time, the program opened with that composer's Don Juan, op. 20, a tone poem that was still ringing admirably in our ears from the visit of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra last winter. It immediately highlighted the brash virtuosity of the Concertgebouw, which Jansons deployed not like Jackson Pollock, flinging cheap paint around the canvas, but like a Dutch oil master. Yes, there were exhilarating swells of sound in the active opening section, but as the harp and celesta ushered in the first amorous episode, it was clear that the story concerned more than simply a venerable orchestra's formidable technique. Co-concertmaster Liviu Prunaru's tone was one of the minor shortcomings, a little caustic and razor-edged for the love scene, totally unlike the sultry oboe solo in the second slow section, surrounded by a lush string fabric like diaphanous veils swirling about the lover's heaving and sighing.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The Concertgebouw, on a Human Scale (Washington Post, February 5)

Tim Smith, A weekend with Mahler excites and inspires (Baltimore Sun, February 5)

George Loomis, A Model of Sound (New York Sun, February 4)

Jeremy Eichler, A virtuoso instrument from Amsterdam (Boston Globe, February 4)

Anne Midgette, Sleepless in Amsterdam (And Munich) (Washington Post, February 3)

Mark Swed, One word for the Royal Concertgebouw: superhuman (Los Angeles Times, February 1)

Steven Winn, A symphony fantastique at Davies (San Francisco Chronicle, January 30)
As a follow-up to this weekend's all-Mahler program from the National Symphony, one could not hope for better than the Royal Concertgebouw's Mahler fifth without seeming greedy (say, Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra). It is one of the more popular and often-heard of Mahler's symphonies -- we have reviewed live performances recently from the Staatskapelle Berlin (Barenboim) in Florence, the Baltimore Symphony (Alsop), and farther back, the Philadelphia Orchestra (Eschenbach). We have grappled with the vast number of recordings, too. Unlike Barenboim and Bernstein, who tend to favor individual characteristics, Jansons seemed inclined toward the long view. Thus the slinky, sinuous character of the opening march was interrupted by a driving fast section, just as the suave slow parts of the second movement were flustered by wild outbursts. Jansons was able to stretch the tempo luxuriously or drive it forward mercilessly, all with the highly skilled members of the orchestra with him pace for pace.

The third-movement scherzo was set at an ideal tempo, highly detailed in all of its dynamic swells. After considerable restlessness, the trio was more relaxed, understated and tender, allowing the buried voices to peep out. The pizzicato sections were so hushed that it held one silent, breath stifled, only to be followed by the last gasp of the dance, triumphant in movement. The crucial Adagietto was delightfully simple, not without rubato but also not bloated by overindulgence. Much of it was little more than a whisper: timed at 9:51, it reminded somewhat of Barenboim and Rattle but was distinguished from them by its greater subtlety and transparency. The fifth movement was a relentless and thrilling finale that concluded another cherished evening with the palette of sounds from the Royal Concertgebouw.

The next WPAS concerts will feature violinist Gil Shaham and his pianist sister Orli Shaham at Strathmore (February 8, 8 pm) and flutist James Galway at the Kennedy Center (February 25, 8 pm).


Anonymous said...

Charles, enjoyed your assessment of one of my favorite orchestras. I'm hearing all three nights at Carnegie, and so far (after last night's excellent Debussy and Berlioz) my only beef is that their programming is just a teensy bit conservative, given what they program in Amsterdam.

I'll be eager to hear the Ketting, of course, but would have loved to hear them do say, a suite from Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (following that spectacular DVD release last year) or say, some large piece by Louis Andriessen. In this respect, the concerts here last fall by Rattle and Berlin trumped these, by just a little.

But I carp! It is great to have them here at all--they only come every other year--so I shouldn't complain too loudly. Your description of Don Juan and the Mahler Fifth only increased my anticipation for Wednesday evening.

Charles T. Downey said...

Agreed about the programming, Bruce. We can get the broadcast series from the Concertgebouw on the Baltimore radio station here, and I have heard some amazing rare repertoire from them. Jansons' Shostakovich symphonies, in particular, would be most welcome. Anytime.

I have read that the Ketting piece is a dud, actually, but it would still be great to hear three nights of the RCO, so I envy you New Yorkers. Good on you for going to all three concerts. I look forward to reading something about what you thought.

jfl said...

1. Chailly
2. Boulez
3. Barshai
4. Neumann (I)
5. Abbado II

Unknown said...

Saw them at Carnegie - not good. The most boring and uninspired Mahler I ever got to hear, we almost left early. This was a flat performance (as flat as the brass was a bit too often) without any emotion in it. It was an empty shell of a Mahler symphony without the Mahler in it. But with way too many missed entrances. Lack of clearness and dynamic variance was also bothering. Nothing compared to the dramatic performances of e.g. Philadelphia / Eschenbach.
I heard the RCO many years ago with Chilly (Firebird) - seems a different orchestra under Jabson - and certainly not a better one.