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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Janine Jansen

Mariss Jansons
Mariss Jansons, conductor

Online scores:
Sibelius, Violin Ccncerto | Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2
The biennial appearances by the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest are generally among the highlights of our listening seasons in Washington. After lauded concerts in 2006 and 2008, Amsterdam's finest returned to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night, to disappointment that was probably inevitable. Not that the playing was not fine: all of the pistons of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's various engines were firing with fully revving power. Not that their conductor, Mariss Jansons, does not remain one of my favorites for the elegant minimalism of his gestures and his interpretative suavity: a high-performance driver who knows all the curves of the course and the strengths of the machine under his hands. Not that their soloist, the rising Dutch violin star Janine Jansen, did not live up to her reputation for clean, attractive sound. No, the concert failed only in the sense that it was not a grand prix kind of victory that we have come to expect from this venerable and beloved orchestra.

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Tchaikovsky Concerto

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Beethoven / Britten

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Bruch / Mendelssohn

We have admired the playing of Janine Jansen in recording and in the Mendelssohn concerto with the NSO a couple years ago, but her take on the Sibelius violin concerto, heard so many times in Washington in recent years and in recording, lacked the raw power it needed. Although Jansen has been making recordings of the major violin concertos the last few years as she has been touring them -- her Sibelius concerto is likely on the horizon -- the adjectives that come to mind to describe her playing -- silvery, warm, elegant, refined all get used regularly in reviews -- do not quite do it for the Sibelius.

This was a performance that was sultry, almost oddly so, at its best in the smoky introduction to the first movement for example, its tense and dramatic opening supported by a hushed string section. The tone could be searing and throaty -- at least from our place closer to the stage (other eyes ears in the balcony proclaimed her inaudible) -- the intonation pure, the many octaves and other technical demands mostly tamed. Jansons' enthusiastic tempo pushed her technique too close to the breaking point at the end of the first movement, and he had to make more than a few adjustments to cover slightly dropped beats in the raucous third movement, the "polonaise for polar bears" as Tovey so memorably described it.

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Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2, Detroit Symphony Orchestra,
L. Slatkin

(released on January 26, 2010)
Naxos 8.572458 | 60'43"
Jansons gave the second half of the program over to a piece that I have tried to love, Rachmaninov's second symphony, but cannot help but find to be a ham-fisted piece of schlock. Leonard Slatkin's new recording of the piece, which has been in my ears in preparation for this concert, is a sign of the good work he is doing in his new post with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It would be unfair to blame Rachmaninov for Never Gonna Fall in Love Again, based on the famous theme of this symphony's third movement -- unless we are willing to blame Chopin for I'm Always Chasing Rainbows -- but Rachmaninov's melodic turn of phrase, the wall-of-sound string writing, the cheesecake harmonic palette have become so synonymous with schmaltz that it is hard to take this music seriously.

If any orchestra and any conductor could make me do exactly that, however, it would be the Royal Concertgebouw and Mariss Jansons. The orchestra made what is probably the best Rachmaninov symphony cycle, with Vladimir Ashkenazy, if you do happen to be a fan, including the uncut version of the second symphony, which they also played here -- all fifty-odd minutes of glorious, eye-rolling treacle (perhaps some cuts were a good idea, after all?). The Largo introduction to the first movement seethed with anguish, until a lovely English horn solo swept us into the fast section, complete with carefully calibrated tidal swells of the entire ensemble. The scherzo was agitated, with a haunted middle section, the sounds of the military band echoed in the trio seeming to come right out of Berlioz.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A passionate Royal Concertgebouw with Janine Jansen, violin soloist (Washington Post, February 17)

Tim Smith, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Jansons, Jansen superb in DC visit (Baltimore Sun, February 16)

Alex Baker, Concertgebouw! (Wellsung, February 15)

Allan Kozinn, A Dutch Orchestra Plumbing the Depths (New York Times, February 18)
In that saccharine third movement, Jansons mercifully kept the rubato in check, emphasizing the piece's intensity rather than its potentially cavity-causing sweetness. The fourth movement had boundless energy, showing the orchestra's tight sense of ensemble and balance in the best light, but it was hard not to miss the other selection on the orchestra's brief American tour this year: Mahler's third symphony, to be played on the second of two concerts by the RCO at Carnegie Hall tonight (they repeated the Sibelius-Rachmaninov program there last night). Not that that work could have fit on this program, and not that the orchestra's Mahler cycle does not have a few flaws, judging from Jens's recent trip to Amsterdam. It was just that at the end of the evening, one felt cheated of the main course, an empty feeling that a rather chintzy encore, the Farandole from Bizet's second suite of music from L'Arlésienne, did nothing to alleviate.

The next orchestra invited to Washington by WPAS is the San Francisco Symphony, which will appear at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall next month (March 24, 8 pm) in a program of Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Liszt, and Kissine.


symphony fan said...

I am a fan of your blog but must disagree with this review. You came and what did you want, a life altering experience? The KCO offered excellent playing throughout the ensemble, heck, in DC I’d be happy if the back of the first violins are even paying attention. The orchestra has a sound the is second to none, they blend as an ensemble in a way that is unique, the oboe takes on timbres of the strings, and the horn seems to grow out of the wind colors. Even the crash cymbals were warm and lush to match legato passages. Some may have preferred a concert of heavier rep, but the Rachmaninov belongs to a class of “starter symphonies” that are very approachable to people without much exposure to classical music. It can’t be Mahler every night, sometimes lighter music is fine (just with variety please! I am bored with the same Tchaikovsky over and over again, paired with a concerto and modern overture) This concert was likely the finest orchestral playing in DC since the London Symphony was here last March.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you for reading, and thank you especially for making a comment. It is always helpful and satisfying to have one's views challenged!

I agree with all of your praises -- indeed, I had nothing but praise for the orchestra's sound. With all that talent, however, the concert just felt jejune -- not unpleasant at all, just not the sort of superlative evening one has come to expect from them.

Charles T. Downey said...

It sounds like Allan Kozinn's impressions, in the New York Times, are right in line with mine. The best playing was in the Mahler (which we did not hear), the Sibelius was "puzzling," and the Rach2, an "unwieldy" and "sprawling" score, "remained a parade of appealing episodes rather than an exciting whole. The playing was beyond reproach, but even so, it barely hinted at what was to come with Mahler the next night."