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We're Number Six!

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/13/2009 -  & 03/14/09
Jörg Widmann: Con brio
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 88
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Ricarda Merbeth (soprano), Michelle Breedt (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor), Michael Volle (baritone), Emanuel Ax (piano)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Mariss Jansons, Jörg Widmann (© Manfred Jahreiss/BR)

Although it must be taken with an entire pound of salt, the new Gramophone magazine ranking of the world’s top twenty orchestras pays quite a compliment to Mariss Jansons. Not only is his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra listed at number one, but his “other” band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, came in sixth and came into Carnegie Hall this weekend for three eagerly anticipated concerts, the first two of which are reviewed here.

Friday night opened with a bit of a stunt. Jörg Widmann penned Con brio to open this orchestra’s season, the remaining bill of fare that evening consisting of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Had Brian Ferneyhough’s opera Shadowtime had Beethoven as its protagonist rather than Walter Benjamin, it might have sounded something like this, snippets of music wafting in the air and diffusing into infinity. We all applauded politely as Mr. Widmann came out of the audience for a bow.

Emanuel Ax was on hand for a splendid reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. Quite simply, this is how Mozart should be played: clean, clear, dignified, refined. Mr. Ax hardly ever ventured above a mezzoforte, making the most of his entrance in the Allegro maestoso to dazzle sotto voce. Mr. Jansons was a willing partner in this understated beauty, his smallish orchestra responding with utmost clarity and discipline. The rap on Mr. Ax here in town is that we hear him so often that he can seem a bit tedious. I disagree. He is a marvel of consistency with a very strong message: Don’t overdo it!”

Lastly, the Bavarians produced a superb Tchaikovsky 4, remarkable for its intricate string sound and spectacular brass. There was never a botched entrance or even a detectable wrong note. Not as viscerally exciting as some versions, particularly the Maazel effort last season with the New York Philharmonic, but still a very impressive technical marvel. Sometimes German ensembles present Russian music a little too martially, rhythms unvarying and – well – Prussian. But Maestro would have none of that, imbuing his own Baltic sensibilities and his outstanding Russian training – he was, among other things, assistant to Mravinsky in Leningrad – to extract a somewhat exotic Eurasian sound.

The finest performance of the two evenings in question had to be the opening one on Saturday. Had Franz Joseph Haydn written his Symphony No. 88 today, no orchestra would play it. Not because of its harmonic language or tonal explorations, but rather because of its unrelenting optimism, now so out of fashion. The smaller Bavarian ensemble was exquisitely balanced throughout, the excitement of the final two glorious movements thrilling. Those who think that emotion should be excised from these Classical works need to listen to a performance like this one, a delightful plunge into the cool, refreshing waters of gloriously limpid sound.

What was most remarkable about the rendition of the immortal Beethoven Symphony No. 9 was the sense that this was a marmoreal masterpiece that needed to be shaped by a master. From first note to last, this fine orchestra was invested in the work, Mr. Jansons guiding the interplay with a strong sense of purpose and humility. Changing the platform positioning to the antiphonal – previously the group had featured the violas out front stage left – created a more powerful sound with the horns in particular intoning magnificently. Jansons did a great job of keeping all elements in sync, making special effects like the offstage parts and the Janissary music especially thrilling. I would have wished for a bit more intensity in the more anguished parts of the first and especially the beginning of the second movements, but overall, instrumentally at least, this was an amazing realization.

It is very expensive to fly your own chorus over for a tour, especially when they only work for a few minutes in a three concert presentation, so Mr. Jansons was stuck with the Westminster Symphonic Choir who didn’t so much sing as shout their parts at such a high volume level that they immediately began sharping all over the hall (as if this vocal ending weren’t weird enough!). The soloists were adequate at best, but certainly not memorable. Pity. So much terrific musicmaking ended with a train wreck.

Mariss Jansons deserves tremendous credit for making this orchestra one of the very finest in the world. Or does he? The Vienna Philharmonic, which ranked third in that new survey, doesn’t even employ a regular conductor.

Fred Kirshnit



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