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Ionarts at Large: Beethoven Pinnacle with Jansons

Karol Szymanowski is undoubtedly Poland’s most important composer (if we assign Chopin to the French, for the moment) and while he doesn’t exactly suffer from neglect, his work is not heard as often in the concert hall as its quality and allure would merit – nay: demand. All the more cherished was the performance of his Third Symphony by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons on the 18th and 19th of this month. The three movement Symphony for large orchestra, wordless chorus, and tenor titled “Song of the Night” isn’t just related by name to Mahler: It is set to poetry of ‘exotic’ origin (chinoiserie in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, oriental with Szymanowski’s setting of a Rumi poem), it also sounds a bit like the inner movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony extrapolated and expanded. With a good helping of Debussyesque orchestral painting.

Amid its towering, ecstatic climaxes, Szymanowski must have put enough echt-Persian flavor to make K.S.Sorabji, the composer/pianist of Iranian descent, exclaim that Szymanowski “is no European in oriental fancy-dress – but one whose clairvoyance, sympathy, and spiritual kinship created a musical language that we instinctively recognize as the essence of Persian art.” With musical voluptuousness and an unusually full, generous sound, Jansons, the BRSO, the Bavarian Radio Choir, and Rafał Bartmiński delivered a highly engaged and engaging performance.

available at Amazon
Szymanowski, Symphony No.3 et al.,
Rattle, C.o.Birmingham SO et al.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Sy.3,
P.Järvi, German Chamber Phil.

Then came a world premiere in form of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament – Symphonic Fragment for Orchestra”, another BRSO commission to go along with a Beethoven Symphony, in this case the “Eroica”. Shchedrin (Schtschedrin, in his German transliteration - *1932), who is disarmingly realistic about audiences and their relation to classical modernity (“presenting a modern composition after intermission can have grave consequences…”), managed to strike just the right tone. Scored for an ‘Eroica-orchestra’ with additional trombones and a piccolo flute (“borrowed from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”), it opens with the strings and trumpets vigorously trading a five note theme, leads to long legato lines in the violins via mechanical tutti chords that push the musical machinations onward. A tranquil yet busy, repetitive melody finds its end up in an orchestral climax. After a Generalpause flutes and a gentle horn rise from a pedal point of subdued strings that make palpable why Shchedrin’s ‘motto’ for this ever-tonal work is “Through Darkness to Light”. It’s a work much more difficult to explain than listen to. Fortunately, Shchedrin offers a way out here, too. When asked to explain his own work, notes that “one can’t really speak about music. One must hear it.” The audience listened – and for a sub-capacity crowd of subscription holders the applause was very generous, enthusiastic, and prolonged.

Beethoven, finally, and what a treat this was! Tight and energetic without exaggeration, attacking notes early, choosing brisk (but not fast) tempos (~17, 14 ½, 5:45, and less than 12 minutes for the four movements respectively, including exposition repeat), Jansons achieved a full, but not romantically sated sound: Not that hovering big-band largess or ‘varnished oak’ feel that the best of modern romantic interpreters achieve (Thielemann, Barenboim), but not the lean, almost petulant excitement (or extremes, if you wish) that Osmo Vänskä or Paavo Järvi offer in their superb recent recordings. But for such avoiding of extremes, this wasn’t a bland performance in the least. Little touches, like the pianissimo figures of the first violins just after the repeat (b.154 – 160) that were made to sound like they came from far, far away, contributed to the greater picture of one long, unbroken line spanning the symphony from beginning to end.

Add to that the excellence from the BRSO’s players – individually and as a whole – that makes them one of the best orchestras in Europe, even if they are not always the most exciting one. Henrik Wiese (flute), native Bloomingtonian Eric Terwilliger (together with Ursula Kepser and Norbert Dausacker – horns), the oboists, clarinetists, and the timpanist all earned the highest possible accolades. The horn section may not have made a single flub or played a single unlovely note all evening, playing in perfect unison and with the most beautiful imaginable tone. The third movement’s combination of Haydenesque lightness and raw power – unleashed as if the music was a force of nature – was already a dream. And the pulsating, yet stately fourth movement offered more of the same plus energetic gravity, defying the inherent contradiction of those terms. The whole evening was one of those nights that remind us why we still go to concerts and why our expectations are rightly so high when we do. The Bruckner-dud from Thanksgiving was thus more than redeemed.

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