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Triumph and Transfiguration

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/14/2013 -  & January 29 (Wien), February 1 (Luxemburg), 6 (Madrid), 2013
Richard Strauss: Death and Transfiguration, Opus 24
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Nr. 7 in E Major (Edition Nowak)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (Chief Conductor)

M. Jansons (© Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)

On paper, this could have been the anti-Valentine’s Day concert. “Transfiguration” is fine, but “Death”? Uh-uh. And if we must have Bruckner, why not give us the “Romantic” Fourth Symphony for Valentine’s Day instead of the first two movements of the Seventh Symphony? (The final sections have a tempered joy suitable for the holiday.)

So my initial feeling was to eschew the second concert of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and do something more...er...amiable with my longtime girlfriend. Besides that, for her, Bruckner is a four-letter word, so I didn’t want to drag her along.

“You’re not taking me?” she asked. “Hey, I’d go to the Concertgebouw if they were playing Snoop Dogg or Pat Boone. Let’s go.”

A splendid choice, for listening to a pair of Late Romantic familiar works gave impetus once again to say that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has the most glistening sounds, the most well-oiled orchestral machine which still gives the illusion of pure spontaneity. And even when the going gets rough in the Bruckner, when the brass consort of this orchestra takes over, when the four Wagner tubas and ten horns, trumpets and trombones rise to the occasion, then Carnegie Hall begins to shake enough to make Snoop Dogg sound like Telemann.

The concert was, in caloric terms, very fattening indeed. This was the young Richard Strauss writing about death with mournful strings, deathly pain with the cracking trumpets and orchestra wracking pain, and finally one of the great Strauss themes pushing our hero into a Neo-Platonic heaven with all the glory necessary.

Mariss Jansons, a Latvian who studied and worked much of his life in Russia, knows these big sounds, and pushed the orchestra to the limits. By the time of transfiguration, it could have simply been a loud climax. But thanks to the triple-threats of resonant Carnegie Hall acoustics, Maestro Jansons’ understanding for the grand sound, and those players of the orchestra, the mumblings of the “Death” (which inevitably were a bit blurred) turned into burnished revelation.

The Bruckner Seventh was of course more problematic. Mr. Jansons’ splendid conducting did not necessarily mean originality. He paced the first movement with great care, though that care didn’t do justice to the Scherzo. The preceding night, Mr. Jansons took the rustic Mahler scherzo from the First Symphony, making it a jolly Fiddle-on-the-Roof-style dance. Granted, the village dancers of Upper Austria are a bit more constrained, but Mr. Jansons didn’t exactly augment their proper prancing.

The finale seemed all too short. This was where Mr. Jansons and his orchestra forget the religious cerebration of the opening, giving way to a very human celebration.

Of course the centerpiece was Bruckner’s Adagio. Wisely, Mr. Jansons needed nothing to augment the holy, sanctified inspiration of the composer. The coda with the Wagner tubas, an homage to Richard Wagner, who had died during the composition, was here not so much a doleful eulogy as a glorious climax to the composer’s champion and mentor.

Alas, there are no more concerts by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra this year. Although they are on a world tour for the 125 Anniversary, New York would be insulted as being part of “the world”. We are special, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is exceptional, and while we must wait for a further presence, their sounds are a template for all other orchestras to come.

Harry Rolnick



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