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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Be My Valentine

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Mahler, Symphony No. 1, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, M. Jansons

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Bartók, Violin Concertos, J. Ehnes, BBC Philharmonc, G. Noseda
The much-anticipated visit by Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, was one of the most important concerts of the month. Each of this beloved ensemble's appearances in Washington -- 2010, 2008, 2006, to name just the last few -- have been valuable listening. This orchestra has a warm, perfectly balanced and unified sound, and they make music subtly, that is, they will not play mp when p is what is called for and what will do. This meant that the two long pieces on offer this week -- Bartók's second violin concerto and Mahler's first symphony, but sadly not also the second program of Strauss's Death and Transfiguration and Bruckner's seventh symphony they will play tonight at Carnegie Hall -- sounded at times like completely different ensembles were playing them, both of them excellent but with vastly different sorts of colors at their disposal. They have been doing what they do for 125 years this November -- the institution has scores of the Mahler symphonies marked up by Willem Mengelberg and Mahler himself -- and long may they reign.

We last heard this Bartók concerto from the National Symphony Orchestra and Midori in 2007, but in the hands of Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conductor Mariss Jansons it seemed like a different piece. (Bartók's dedicatee, Zoltán Székely, premiered the concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw in 1939, under the baton of Willem Mengelberg.) We last heard Kavakos in 2009, having missed his 2011 appearance with the NSO. Since then he has resigned as artistic director of Camerata Salzburg, perhaps putting his conducting career (happily) on the back burner, and he acquired the "Abergavenny" Stradivarius of 1724 (in 2010). Both the instrument and the player -- Kavakos had an abscess removed from his back in 2009, a situation that required him to drop out of the National Symphony Orchestra's tour of Asia -- sounded in top form, with a rich, biting tone right from the opening solo bars of this alternately modern-vicious, folk-innocent, and curiously Hollywood-sugar concerto. Jansons kept an elegantly flexible rubato free and yet clearly aligned between soloist and orchestra, and Kavakos added that mercurial element of the best soloists. Bartók exceeded himself in the endless variation of orchestration: insect-buzzing night music, braying glissandi, low brass and percussion rumbles, evanescent strings.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, An orchestra’s practiced perfection (Washington Post, February 14)
Jansons has recorded Mahler 1 with a few different ensembles, including the RCO and the Oslo Philharmonic -- I listened most to his version with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BR-Klassik) this week. Jansons did not rush the piece too much, like other conductors (Gergiev, London SO), but he did not make a point of over-solemnizing it either, like others (Honeck, Pittsburgh SO). The opening of the first movement had an air of suspended mystery, but animated by spontaneous bird calls and bubbling brass fanfares, with consummate control of the dynamic spectrum from Jansons and his musicians, the suave and velvety softness making the big crescendi even more thrilling. He helped give the Ländler a slightly tipsy, pompous quality, with gutsy slides in the strings and raucous, cackling horns, and a Bruder Martin theme that did not plod (we have heard the third movement played much slower) but that joined perfectly with the contrasting sections (including a tender lullaby middle section), so that one almost did not notice the shifts between them. The Finale was appropriately dramatic and stormy, showing off the RCO as the well-oiled machine that it is, all intonation and attacks spot on. It is a rare and welcome experience, as a critic who has heard this piece so many times, to have this interpretation cause moments of honest horripilation. It was a grand way to remedy my total lack of Mahler in 2012.

The next concert in the WPAS series will feature violinist Hilary Hahn (February 16, 8 pm), a program in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that includes pieces from her encores project.

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