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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 13 )
Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw in an All-Russian Program

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Reviewable in six words: “Yeah, whatever…” • “Very interesting.” • “Holy Cow!!!”

Those are technical terms, of course, and they describe the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s guest appearance at the Salzburg Festival, where they performed Bela Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta”, Modest Musorgksy’s “Songs and Dances of Death” (liberally orchestrated by Shostakovich), and Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu, his “Firebird”.

Get Lost In Color

I had plenty reason to suspect that the Firebird would be not just good, but great; in part because the orchestra’s abilities and the conductor’s strength play into the hands of a work that demands color, color, color, rather than rhythm, structure, precision. It shows on their recording (which made my “Best of 2008 List), where the Firebird far outshines perfectly wonderful “Rite of the Spring”. But even those high expectations where surpassed by hearing the orchestra respond to a visibly healthy Jansons enjoying himself, guiding the orchestra—as one player put it afterwards—as if he was holding a quill. The moto perpetuo double bass stomping of the opening and the brass emerged so softly, as if played far away. The strings’ cinematic, shimmering playing, detailed but not clinical or even ‘nouvelle cuisine’ style, was enchanting, stirring, lulling; just like it ought to be, given the sujet of the ballet. The work seems made for that band, with its wealth of shades and nuance all coming out… and even if the band masters the subtle haze (as opposed to the razor sharp precision of Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic, for example) the shrieks and orchestral clashes were easily as harrowing here; the frenzy perfectly believable, the performers on the edge of their seats. The whole last scene of the Firebird was a celebration of organic beauty and the audience virtually erupted after the finale notes. The most enthusiastic applause—by far—that I’ve witnessed yet at any Festival concert this season, forced two encores (Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt and Dvořák's Slavic Dance op.72/7) from a beaming Jansons and his Concertgebouw Orchestra (with one of last year's ARD Prize Winners).

Graphic Bleak & Black

Modest Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death are expectedly a grim affair and a rarely heard one. Surely a programming choice borne out of Mariss Jansons’ special passion for Russian repertoire in general and Shostakovich in particular. I say Shostakovich, not Musorgsky, because the theatrical, not just picturesque but downright graphic orchestrations leave the Songs and Dances more a cooperative effort than a mere orchestral ‘realization’. They’re not works most audiences will demand to hear every couple of seasons, but then that’s hardly what is looming on the programming-horizon. It’s rather a question of hearing them at all in concert. (On disc, they’re pretty well represented, actually.) Ferrucio Furlanetto lent his dark italiante bass—slightly vailed—to these pieces and benefited from the orchestra in supremely alert accompaniment mode, sounding ‘Russian’ at the wave of Mariss Jansons’ little finger. A happy surprise of the evening, if not a stunner.

When Beauty Doesn’t Cut It

Nice as it is to hear a great orchestra at home, in its familiar setting and acoustic, it’s often nice still to hear them when they are on tour in a place and hall with a great reputation like the Vienna Musikverein, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonie or at the Großes Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival. The ghosts of past greats look down upon the players, and a (presumably) discerning, foreign audience at them from the orchestra seating. The players are out to impress, the sense of occasion is palpable. Those are the moments when orchestras can push themselves to “11”. All that wasn’t quite enough to make the Bartók compelling; the really tight rhythms that propel the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (if it is to be propelled at all; I find it’s a work as likely to go by me as to grab me) were lacking, the Concertgebouw sounding like a gorgeous, beautiful—but unfortunately slightly dull—knife. But I doubt anyone who felt similarly (the eager-early-clapper and Bravo-yeller at least seemed to have loved it, not waiting for the last note even to be fully played) still thought much about Bartók after a Firebird of a lifetime.

Pictures courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Wolfgang Lienbacher

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