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Surg(ing) Rachmaninoff

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/16/2010 -  & January 8 (Valencia), 9 (Madrid), 15 (Washington), 2010
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

Janine Jansen (Violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (Chief Conductor)

J. Jansen (© Jennifer Taylor)

A fairly well-known conductor of my acquaintance, famed for his Webern, Weill, Janácek and contemporary British composers, has undisguised contempt for Late Romantics like Sibelius and Rachmaninoff. Still, I heard him conduct the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony once, and it was a dynamic performance.

“Maestro,” I said, when we met after the concert, “that was a really thrilling Second Symphony tonight.”

He looked at me and growled. “Yes. And don’t you ever mention it again.”

Rachmaninoff does have that effect on people. His piano-playing was unparalleled, his competence as a composer must be praised. As a liability, he never advanced in composition, and his 1907 Symphony could have been written alongside his 1941 Symphonic Dances.

These, though, are words for the historian. When the Royal Concertgebouw (RCO) plays the Second Symphony, contempt is inapplicable. One must simply go along with an emotional (if guilt-ridden) powerful love of the music. Aaron Copland once described it as “So many notes…for what end?” But good art doesn’t really have any “end.” If we are moved, it may be enough.

The RCO has played these spacious emotional works ever since Willelm Mengelberg. They play Mahler (as they will tonight) and Bruckner and Rachmaninoff with the balance and equanimity of uniformly excellent ensemble musicians. Not that the music is bland, but it is never idiosyncratic, rarely takes chances.

Thus, this was not a volatile or tensely charged Rachmaninoff, though several moments were unforgettable. Toward the end of the development in the first movement, conductor Mariss Jansons brought out the most sinister reverberations from the low brass and cellos which were most unnerving. In the Adagio, solo violin and clarinet seemed to represent the repressed passion of the music.

True, the finale lacked that pointed attack, the wild tarantella rhythms which one often hears. But that wasn’t necessary. This Rachmaninoff was not a torrential storm, but the voyage on a an ocean which surged and heaved, whose tides were strong and never calm, but whose waters basically were safe.

It is always a pleasure to hear–and see–Janine Jansen again. I have no hesitation in the visual reference, since Ms. Jansen’s website shows her, if not deshabillée, certainly, er, appealing. Add to that her stage presence, swaying and moving with the music.

As is her playing. She is a most poetic violinist, and her Strad “Barrere” has all the sensitivity and response to her fingers. The last time she was here, playing the Mozart Symphonie Concertante, her poetic sensibility made it a joyous affair. Sibelius, though, despite the 19th Century romantic aura, can be an earthy and paradoxical piece. And I don’t know if she quite managed to hit below the surface.

I have heard more, more emotional performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, bit in the parts which counted–the rhapsodic opening, the lovely Adagio melody where she played free of the orchestra–Ms. Jansen was excellent. But in its final form, this was a pleasant Sibelius. Perhaps in line with the RCO itself, a concerto which stayed within its confines of perfection and moderation.

Harry Rolnick



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