Richard Bratby

Inviting Jansons to the Barbican was like pouring vintage Pol Roger into a throwaway plastic cup

Inviting Jansons to the Barbican was like pouring vintage Pol Roger into a throwaway plastic cup
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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons


NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover / Andrew Manze

Symphony Hall

At the end of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony Mariss Jansons asked the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to stand up, and they refused. That’s not something that occurs in every concert; in fact, you might never see it happen. But this act of low-key mutiny is about the highest tribute an orchestra can pay to a conductor – to decline credit for the applause, handing it over in its entirety to the old maestro standing in their midst, looking shattered. A few moments later, Mitsuko Uchida presented Jansons with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, but that gesture from the band was the real accolade. No man is a hero to his valet, and as a rule orchestral players are quicker to damn than praise. So when an orchestra refuses to stand, it can generally be taken as sincere.

And it probably was. It’s easy to be cynical about famous conductors, and it’s certainly entertaining. In the preceding 24 hours Jansons had been the subject of a Twitterstorm over an unguarded comment, torn from a Daily Telegraph interview in which, after expressing unreserved commitment to equality, he apparently added that female conductors were nevertheless 'not my cup of tea'. Deeply disappointing, if he genuinely meant that (the context implied the opposite). It does seem a curiously idiomatic choice of phrase from a man whose English, on the evidence of his speech at the end of this concert, is not fluent. Still, that’s how we live now. Any journalist can admire an elephant trap well sprung, and Jansons is unquestionably a big beast. Ask many orchestral musicians which conductors they admire, and it’s noticeable how often his name comes up – along with the suggestion that the Bavarian RSO, which Jansons has directed since 2003, is actually a better orchestra (whatever that means) than either the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic.

I’ll give them the violin sound, and possibly the whole string section (this being the Barbican, the cellos were practically inaudible from my seat). The concert began with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, so the first notes came from the soloist Yefim Bronfman. But the instant the orchestra made its response, you were aware of that sound. Oceanic is the word; a vast, centred physical presence, glowing from within. It dominated the Beethoven, and Bronfman placed his chords and phrases into that space with such eloquence and gentleness that it felt as if there wasn’t any truly fast music in the whole concerto, even when conductor, soloist and orchestra were visibly throwing themselves at it.

The full orchestra got more of a run out in the Prokofiev, and it was striking how Jansons deployed the individual qualities of his players as part of his overall conception. With each flautist making a wholly distinctive sound, there was no attempt to make the opening phrases blend – it was as if the symphony was being assembled out of the air. More often, though, Jansons let the colours emerge naturally. The bass clarinet marched in oily lockstep with metallic piano rhythms; the tuba swelled into its place beneath the big brass chords, and who knew that a wood block could sound so succulent? Jansons’s approach to the symphony was balletic, rather than epic. So when he did impose himself – most noticeably in the nightmare machine-music of the closing pages – you felt the thrill of an artist channelling powerful, possibly dangerous, forces with total control. Easier in music than on social media, I suppose.

This all comes with the caveat that no orchestra can be judged properly in the Barbican. As things stand, though, acoustically-poor London venues are often the only ones that can afford to promote major overseas orchestras in the UK. Birmingham has a hall worthy of the BRSO, but it got the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Andrew Manze, who for all their qualities don’t come trailing quite the same clouds of glory. They did, however, have the pianist Igor Levit, also performing Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. And where Bronfman had begun with a statement – a single chord – Levit broke the silence (and there’s no more pregnant silence than at Symphony Hall) with a question: a rippling spread of notes. Where Bronfman was mellow, Levit was brilliant; where one conveyed calm authority, the other probed and pointed, culminating in a first movement cadenza (Beethoven’s own) that Levit transformed into something as wild and dissonant as Beethoven’s own improvisations are said to have been.

Manze and the NDR orchestra accompanied him brightly. They’re a youthful-sounding team with a warm, walnut-finished sonority that gained in firmness and depth from Manze’s decision to place the basses in a row at the back of the orchestra, projecting a wall of dark brown sound. Occasional raggedness and some slightly blank woodwind solos were beside the point. They gave a fiery account of Beethoven’s Egmont overture and zipped through the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony like it was Haydn, which is never a bad thing. Anyway, that was the choice if you wanted to hear a German orchestra in the UK last weekend, and until London builds itself a proper orchestral concert hall, it’s typical. Birmingham served very drinkable vin ordinaire in hand-blown crystal, while the capital poured vintage Pol Roger into a throwaway plastic cup.