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18.12.19

Ten Recordings to Remember Mariss Jansons By

Photo of Mariss Jansons by Astrid Ackermann


Mariss Jansons died last month, on November 30th. His passing, at 76, comes earlier than we somehow would expect from a great conductor - since we tend to perceive great conductors bathed in a gentle glow of immortality. (And because conductors, despite exceptions, tend to live long and active lives.) But it did not come entirely unexpected, either, after his past and recent health failings and his preternaturally frail appearance. Between my first Mariss Jansons concert with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2006 (ionarts review) until my last review of a Jansons-concert (with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Munich's Gasteig) almost exactly ten years later (ionarts review here), he had been one of the conductors I had followed the most closely and heard the most often. I cannot say that I was always entirely enamored by the results, but often enough impressed and on some occasions blown away. Much the same goes for his recorded output which isn't very even but which contains much quality, some of which truly stands out. These are ten recordings that I think represent Jansons rather well and include the four bands with which he worked the most (Oslo, Pittsburgh, Amsterdam & Munich) the best. Failing that, they are those recordings I am most likely to remember him by. (Do you agree? Do you have other favorites? Let me know; we'll have that discussion.)


available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sy.4, BRSO
(EMI/Warner)


Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No.4, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra [BRSO] (EMI/Warner)


Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was first suppressed, then ignored as not quite being up to snuff, compared to the popular favorites (Five, Seven, Eleven). That’s changed a good deal, in the last ten, fifteen years: The Fourth is absolutely one of the great symphonies of Shostakovich’s and one of the most important. It contains every kernel of what makes Shostakovich’s music from that point on. It only takes a good performance to bring it out – and there is perhaps none better on record than Mariss Jansons 2004 recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – made just after he had taken on his new jobs in Amsterdam and Munich. It combines all the hard, knockabout grit that the most ferocious recordings feature – and also the beauty and sheen that the more lyrical interpretations produce. The Bavarians under Jansons perform it with all that anger, the biting, painful sarcasm, and the futile energy that gives you the chills on hearing the Fourth. When you need a break from ‘Mozart for Morning Meditation’ and ‘Bach for Bedtime’, do get a dose of this ‘Shostakovich for Late-Afternoon Despair!’ (My full review on ionarts here.)



available at Amazon
H.Berlioz & E.Varèse, Symphonie Fantastique & Ionisation, BRSO
(BR Klassik)


Hector Berlioz & Edgar Varèse, Symphonie Fantastique & Ionisation, BRSO (BR Klassik)


Tender, halting, tip-toeing, and then socking the listener with a lightning-quick straight left and the occasional gnarling brassy, timpani-thwacking right to the ribs. Bone dry and pointed, detailed and precise, this is a very different Symphonie fantastique from the souped-up romanticism one gets from many a famous recording. It’s super-crisp and unsentimental; underplaying all those mawkish, self-indulgent aspects. It’s not just a great Symphonie fantastique for Berlioz-lovers – it’s perhaps the greatest Symphonie fantastique for Berlioz-haters!

Listening to that recording makes you stop wondering how Mariss Jansons could have forgone his conductorship with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in favor of focusing solely on his Munichians. In the much appreciated added bonus of Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation, the 13-player strong percussion ensemble is just showing off what precision really means. Now just imagine what that they could have done had they still played together in the new, proper concert hall that Jansons was so instrumental in getting built?! (A Forbes “Best Classical Recordings of 2014” Choice of mine)



available at Amazon
J. Sibelius, Karelia suite & Sy.2, BRSO
(BR Klassik)


Jean Sibelius, Karelia suite & Symphony No.2, BRSO (BR Klassik)


For all his Nordic-Baltic creds, Latvian superstar-conductor Mariss Jansons hasn’t distinguished himself as a Sibelian on record yet, neither by means of quantity or quality. If that be a rule, this recording might not have changed it, but it proved to be a welcome exception! What a terrifyingly dark, threatening Finlandia! The Bavarian orchestra takes an animalistic brassy bite out of the music and reveals an interpretation stamped with personality. It is rare goose-bump stuff – much like Jansons shows in Shostakovich always (and in anything else rarely). The Karelia Suite, plangent rather than exuberant, detailed and deliberate, more powerful than dancing, is fascinating, too.

The Second Symphony, finally, is sympathetic and finely chiseled with a touch of conventionality that concurs with the nature of the composition. Hard to imagine that this piece, which we experience as a quintessential ‘Nordic’ composition with craggy rocks, “droning winds…, sparkling sunshine off icicles [and moody mists]” (Clair W. Van Ausdall), should really be Sibelius’ “Italian Symphony”, written mostly in Rapallo where ‘the woods are filled with the scent of violets and the shore covered with pines, olive trees and cypresses… and [where] the blue sunny Mediterranean is bordered by the most luxuriant flora’ (to paraphrase Sibelius’ recollection to Karl Ekman). Jansons isn’t as fitful and dark as Barbirolli with the Royal Philharmonic, nor as sumptuous as Segerstam in Helsinki and not quite as lively and brook-of-glacial-water-like as Berglund with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (to mention three disparate favorites), but he manages to be just hands-off enough to allow for that essential flow and he is aided by the terrific playing: The timpani-and-walking-bass opening of the second movement, for example, is stunning in its clarity and vividness, despite being a live recording. (Forbes CD of the Month Review here)



available at Amazon
P.Tchaikovsky, Symphonies, Oslo Phil
(Chandos)


Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky, Complete Symphonies, Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos)


Mariss Jansons’ juicy, lyrical, and sumptuous Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycle (in Chandos’ over-egged glorious sound) did much to put the orchestra (and its conductor) on the international map. It’s a fabulous set, more than just competitive to this day. “Tight ensemble [work], swift tempos, and a generally passionate response to this very passionate music still shine through.” (Hurwitz) The convenient, reasonably priced set that Chandos re-issued only makes more attractive.


available at Amazon
J.Svendsen, Sy.1 & 2, Oslo Phil
(EMI)


Johan Svendsen, Symphonies 1 & 2, Oslo Philharmonic (EMI)


Jansons wasn’t a particularly adventurous conductor, when it came to repertoire. And some of the out-of-the-way music he conducted with the Oslo Philharmonic was sometimes more hoisted upon him (Catharinus Elling?!) than chosen by him. I don’t know how he felt about Svendsen – incidentally a most lovely Nordic-romantic composer, but not one whose music plays itself – but the result, in any case, is very felicitous. There isn’t much competition (Dausgaard/Hannover and Rasilainen/Oslo RSO, in these two of four symphonies), but Jansons and Oslo’s main orchestra offer the finest sound and impassioned performances that would stand tall even in face of greater choice.


available at Amazon
O.Resphigi, Roman Triology, Oslo Phil
(EMI)


Ottorino Resphigi, Roman Triology, Oslo Philharmonic (EMI)


Nothing rivals Resphigi’s Roman (non-) Trilogy – especially “Pini di Roma” – live in concert, when all hell breaks loose from all sides of the hall. But that doesn’t mean it’s pointless to crank it up at home, when the neighbor are on vacation. And while there are a few other very fine recordings, also (Neschling/OSESP, Muti/Philadelphia, Falletta/Buffalo[!], Tortelier/Philharmonia), this Jansons-Oslo collaboration is among the very top of the litter.


available at Amazon
A. Bruckner, Sy.8, BRSO
(BR Klassik)


Anton Bruckner, Symphony No.8, BRSO (BR Klassik)


In a town that really cherishes its Bruckner, Jansons’ micro-controlling ways would often impede the grand arch that rises if you can let go, sufficiently. (Incidentally, it also bogged down many of his Mahler or Haydn performances.) His recorded Bruckner isn’t much, decent (Seventh), but had never been great. But sometimes old men get wise and with wisdom comes Bruckner… or in Jansons case they give the orchestra unexpected slack and it rewards him with a stupendous performance. Whatever the case may be, this Eighth is really something… well-judged in every way, well-played, grand but not drowning in its own incense.


available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sy.8,
Pittsburgh SO
(EMI/Warner)

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No.8, Pittsburgh Symphony (EMI/Warner)


Even if Mariss Jansons’ ‘global’ EMI Shostakovich cycle, performed with Vienna-, Oslo-, Pittsburgh-, Munich-, London-, Philadelphia-, and Berlin orchestras isn’t totally even (although: no such cycle is, even where performed by one orchestra in a short amount of time), it does show that the one composer Jansons could be relied on giving great performances of, it was Shostakovich. The Bavarian Fourth has pride of place on this list, but the Pittsburgh Eighth ought to be mentioned, too. (And a few others, actually.) The Eighth is a tough nut to crack; the first movement alone demands everything by way of concentration… an intact arch, an unnoticeably, steadily increasing tension and suspense are what it takes. There isn’t a perfect recording that I know of; several are very good (Berglund, Nelsons I, either Previn, even Noseda) and this is one of them, in particularly satisfying sound. Not content on merely setting atmosphere in the first movement (Hello, Rostropovich/LSO!), Jansons starts telling a story from the get-go. That makes it easier to stay with him until the point where the first movement really gets going. And on a recording, you can’t start too far down in pianissimo, because then you won’t hear anything for minutes on end before blowing your speakers when the climaxes come… and the EMI engineers got that just right. The entry into the second movement could have a wee bit more immediate bite, but Jansons and the Pittsburghers get there, eventually, and with panache. Granted, it’s not as brazen as Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya) even at its liveliest but it is also calm where Rostropovich is comatose. Another reason to consider Jansons DSCH one of the go-to sets.


available at Amazon
I.Stravinsky, Firebird Suite & Rite of Spring, RCO
(RCO Live)

Igor Stravinsky, Firebird Suite & Rite of Spring, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra [RCO] (RCO Live)


There were many damp squibs among the recordings from Jansons on RCO Live. Each was awaited by me with great expectations, often was I let down. Not here. Yes, that last little bit of extra kick might be lacking from Janson’s second Stravinsky recording with the RCO, but the combination of sensational, superlative playing and fantastic sonics overrides all possible other concerns on this disc with the Firebird Suite and Le Sacre du Printemps. In particular, the Firebird here is stunningly rich and colorful, with plenty ‘oomph’ and the softness of its hues contributing greatly. It’s a dreamboat of an orchestral recording and shimmers like a rainbow in a soap-store. Le Sacre can be had with sharper rhythms and tarter climaxes, but once Jansons gets the score rolling, it develops an unstoppable force here, too. If you want to hear why the RCO is so highly thought of, and can’t make it to Amsterdam any time soon, this (and the Haitink’s Mahler Fourth or Gatti’s disc of Berg) should give you all the answers you need. (Part of my Best Recordings of 2008)


available at Amazon
J.Brahms & L.v.Beethoven, 2nd Symphonies,
RCO
(RCO Live)


Johannes Brahms & Ludwig van Beethoven, Second Symphonies, RCO (RCO Live)


This recording might not make the cut on a more sober list, but Jansons has died and this one I have personal memories attached to: It was on one of my young self’s trips to New York (the one described in the little cityscape “New York Soundtrack”: I had that disc, with its prominent bouquet of roses on the cover, with me (pre-release, for that extra little special feeling) and popped it in as I walked back from 85th (where I had just sat on the Mannes School of Music stage, behind the piano, at a Marc-André Hamelin recital) to Gramercy via Lincoln Center’s Tower Records which was, in 2005, still something of a temple. From thereon it was Jansons Beethoven’s Second with the Concertgebouw. It sounded like broad, flattened Mozart. But the way it came alive in the second movement, crossing Times Square at night to the soundtrack of that symphony instead of the city noise, was an experience – slightly on the surreal side – that stayed with me. I whistled (badly, no doubt) all the way to 37th, where Brahms’s Second Symphony took over. Here we have a tremendous performance under Jansons. While the Beethoven is very good in its backward-looking, robust way (pointing to the Jupiter more than the Eroica), the Brahms is energetic with great momentum that propels the listener through the first movement in no time. The strings sound excellent and the brass and woodwind have character on top of impeccable playing. I hit L’Express, a 24-hour Bouchon that still exists, after the second movement; the rest of the symphony was enjoyed many hours and several Ricards later, tucked away in bed, around the corner. That’s the little personal memory that I have, with Mariss. May you be conducting an angelic Mahler Eighth!













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