Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us


Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons
Barbican Hall, London 29 January 2006

Haydn Symphony No 94
Strauss Ein Heldenleben

Newly appointed as The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's chief conductor, Mariss Jansons has already recorded Ein Heldenleben on the orchestra's own label. This great tone poem was premiered by Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw in 1889, and has remained in their repertoire ever since.

Their account of it at the Barbican was one to make for re-appraisal. I had a vivid memory of hearing it at one of the London theatres under Beecham during his Strauss festival in 1947. It was preceded by Macbeth, conducted by a Beecham protegé, Norman del Mar, and Richard Strauss sat in a box... Strauss, more than eighty at the time, had tended to be out of favour in Britain, a controversial figure because of his Nazi association, and this was a rather risky undertaking.

Beecham maximised the drama of the noisome critics and the battle scene in Heldenleben, which was equated with German militarism by some of the commentators. Influenced no doubt by fashion, I tended to avoid it in concert since those times as being inexcusably brash and self regarding, and took to Mahler instead...

Jansons, in the Haydn symphony, had a large body of the marvellously well nourished Concertgebouw strings always to the forefront. There was little to surprise on this occasion, and it did not feel a good pairing. The only concession to authentic performance practice was the use of small tympani and hard sticks. Balance was awry in the hall, with the winds far too subservient; probably it sounded better from the podium.

Ein Heldenleben sounded far less jingoistic than I feared, and this was my outstanding orchestral experiences of a year or so. The weight and reliability of the string, to the last desks, made a marvellous support for the woodwinds, whose role was yet never diminished as in the Haydn. Strauss belittled the autobiographical identity of the piece and it came across more as a a tribute to the heroic struggle demanded of all artists, a marker of work in progress, and a demonstration and celebration of his own remarkable compositional technique as a still young man, with sixty productive years of A heroic life ahead.

The critics as depicted, always ready to destroy the weak, made for only a small passing dent on Strauss's self confidence, and more striking was the contrapuntal mastery on show with the manipulation of numerous passing themes from his own already multiplying earlier compositions, the whole a spectacular tour do force. But cleverness was capped by emotional communication, with the leader (Vesko Eschkenazy or Alexander Kerr, not identified in the programme) embracing all the moods of Strauss's capricious wife, so lovingly depicted; his accomplishment and full tone were comparable to Vengerov's earlier in the week! Towards the end of the work there was a mood of quiet acceptance beyond struggle, and the (substituted) swelling chord from the brass was not disruptive, fading to a silence held by Jansons.

The encores raised white heat to incandescence. First a typical Beechamesque contrasting "lollipop", Boccherini's Minuetmoulded with teasing wit to show infinite nuance in the large string body's phrasing, with dynamics refined down to ppp, then a selection from Rosenkavalier to finish exuberantly, before Jansons was obliged to submit to the undignified CD-signing ritual which is now de rigeur for even the greatest maestri.

© Peter Grahame Woolf