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Smetana, Martinů and Brahms

Smetana: Overture: The Bartered Bride (1866/1870)
Martinů: Concerto for double string orchestra, piano and timpani (1938)
Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 (1884/1885)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons

Barbican Hall, London – 12 December 2009

It was a real treat to see the Overture to The Bartered Bride listed as the opener at this return appearance in London after the Proms, but unfortunately the performance left me less than happy. This overture is bright and breezy, frothy and gossamer light, but not tonight. Jansons chose an insanely fast tempo, in the manner of the Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, which robbed the piece of any poise and character it possesses. Racey yes, but totally lacking in charm and integrity.

The Martinů Concerto received a more certain and solid performance. When talking of the two fugues in the second movement of his 5th Symphony, Carl Nielsen said that they were two different ways of trying to resolve the same problem – one intellectual and one emotional. In a way the first two movements, and the finale alone, do this in Martinů’s piece. The music is full of the feelings of the time in which it was written, the first movement is dynamic and edgy, never relenting for a moment - a real challenge for players and audience alike for it is so unforgiving. The slow movement, with its gut wrenching juxtaposition of C and E major, is the emotional core of the work and it contains one of the most well built and sustained climaxes in all 20th century music, delivering a body blow of unremitting intensity. The finale starts with nervous energy to the fore, but it ends with the emotional impact of the slow movement – the quiet ending leaves the music unresolved and the audience in a state of discomfort – with our knowledge of what, historically, was to follow the composition of this work we can add that to our musical experience. Jansons obviously understands this piece and was intent on delivering a performance of some substance, but he didn’t quite manage it. The nervous energy was missing in the fast music and in the slow movement and coda the emotional intensity simply wasn’t there. Ultimately, there was too much intellect and not enough passion. The playing was superb, with a wonderful, full, sound from the two string orchestras, and an excellently clear and precise reading of the piano part from Ellen Corver aided and abetted by timpanist Marinus Komst. Perhaps with a few more performances Jansons will reach the right level of dynamism and emotion to really make this piece work.

We’ve heard the Concertgebouw in Brahms many times, but this is, for me, the first time with their new chief conductor; the performance didn’t quite reach the standard of interpretation we expected. For instance, the very first note of the piece was given tenuto, as if the violins weren’t exactly sure how the piece began and needed a slight breathing space for them all to be brought in together. Exactly the same thing happened at the start of the development. There were also, in the first movement, a few places where Jansons stopped the music for a moment, which ruined the continuous flow which Brahms so obviously intended. The slow movement started far too loudly from the horns, as if they wanted us to know that they were there and in control, and it robbed the movement of its poise and stately quality. Jansons got the scherzo exactly right and the finale was, in general, well handled. But overall, the parts didn’t really add up to the whole. And this was the main problem with tonight’s show; none of the pieces hung together as a whole. Jansons seemed not to have a sufficiently clear idea of where the music was going, so he was unable to fully realise the architecture of the compositions. We were given a couple of encores but they couldn’t make up for what was a misjudged performance.

Bob Briggs

Instead of a photo image, enjoy Janssons conducting a Mahler movement on YouTube [Editor]