London’s own top orchestras are on a high at the moment. So the old implicit idea that visiting orchestras, especially from Germany, provide an opportunity to hear how the core repertoire really ought to be done no longer washes. Mariss Jansons’ Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra concert at the Barbican underlined the point.
Don’t get me wrong. The Munich-based orchestra is a band of fabulous quality. The weight of their sound, the sheen of the strings and the technical ability of their principals are all beyond question, as is Jansons’s famous control and touch. But this all-Russian programme, with one wonderful exception, was not revelatory, let alone definitive. The Bavarians gave us one way of doing these pieces – a very good way and always exceptionally well played – but it’s not the only way.
Prokofiev’s Classical symphony, No 1, with which Jansons began, embodied this. Everything was exquisitely polished and balanced. The ensemble was whip-smart and knowing. Graceful little curlicues in the score were ideally presented, neither too ostentatious nor too obscured. Tempi were unhurried and agreeable. Jansons smiled a lot.
But it never really felt like fun, or a joyful rediscovery of the piece, in the way that the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, with a much smaller ensemble, achieved a month ago in London’s Cadogan Hall. Where the Norwegians got gloriously inside the symphony’s carefully constructed defences, the Bavarians remained respectfully outside it. It felt like a journey through amazing scenery with the windows firmly closed in one of those brilliantly upholstered and engineered cars they also make in Bavaria.
There were times in Shostakovich’s own first symphony, which followed Prokofiev’s, when similar thoughts occurred. Can the 19-year-old composer really have expected the first movement of his 1924 Petrograd conservatoire graduation exercise to sound as refined as the Bavarians made it? I doubt it. But Jansons is a conductor who gets Shostakovich, and with an orchestra of this quality, the detailing was superb and the sheer seriousness of the piece compelling. Orchestral solos from the clarinet, flute, oboe and cello were first-class, with Jansons getting his string sections to play with a huge range of tones and colours. The quirkiness was never allowed to overwhelm the symphony’s much darker aesthetic.
It was, though, in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances that this concert came together most authoritatively. Here once again, the range of string tones was exceptional, from fierce and emphatically angular in the assertive opening dance to gossamer light in the spectral waltz of the second. But this is also a work in which new sounds meet old, in which an alto saxophone, perfectly played, sings what feels like a lament from the heart of old Russia. Jansons has always been one of the finest conductors of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music, and his handling of these three late pieces confirmed that standing afresh. The work is a symphony in all but name, and Jansons ensured that it got the engaged and serious reading that it deserves.