"It is like being presented with a Rolls-Royce to drive," Mariss Jansons said recently of becoming chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Their first London concert revealed his simile to be both apt and awkward.
A Rolls suggests perfection and comfort, plausible when it comes to the BRSO sound, with its plush, cushy strings and mellow brass and woodwind. Yet a Rolls also implies a smooth drive - not a quality we primarily associate with Jansons, a musician given to hard-hitting interpretations of ferocious energy. It may be that he has yet to imprint his formidable personality fully on the BRSO, for there were moments in this concert when you sensed a slight disparity between him and the orchestra.
Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique formed the second half of the programme, a work Jansons conducted with his previous orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, at the 1999 Proms. That was one of the greatest things I've ever experienced in a concert hall. In comparison, the BRSO performance revealed a marginal weakening of intensity. With Bavarian sonic beauty replacing the Pittsburgh's incisive clarity, the tone at the outset was more reflective, the music's hallucinatory force less terrifying. The descent of Berlioz's drug-addicted protagonist into psychic hell became a gradual process rather than a rollercoaster ride through the unbalanced extremes of elation and despair.
The breadth of emotion we usually associate with Jansons was more in evidence in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which opened in high tension with the reiterated phrases of the first movement shredding your nerves. The finale evinced noble dignity rather than being an exhilarating scramble. The slow movement hovered between flowing warmth and eerie stillness, while the scherzo rustled in spectral disquiet.