It is a sign of where the Edinburgh International Festival may be heading under Jonathan Mills, its new director, that the concert programme in the Usher Hall no longer sets out to impress in size or international scale. Most events have been tailored to a theme, often using Scottish orchestras.
Only at the start of the final week did Edinburgh catch its first glimpse of international glamour in the shape of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, its chief conductor. Monday’s audience duly gave the visitors a rapturous welcome, but the Bavarians will face stiffer comparisons when they play the same programme, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Sibelius’s Second Symphony, on Wednesday at the Proms.
Jansons, now in his mid-60s, has reached an age when he wants to focus his energies on a core repertoire, which he repeats and hones in a never-ending quest for truth. The advantage is that the performance is always thoroughly lived-in and searchingly imagined: this conductor is incapable of working on auto-pilot, even when his encores – Sibelius’s Valse triste and a waltz sequence from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, giving the evening a neat symmetry – are pieces he could conduct in his sleep.
The disadvantage is that much of Jansons’ repertoire has become a known quantity. In Also sprach Zarathustra that may be no bad thing. Instead of descending into a string of blowzy big moments, as usually happens in the hands of a lesser interpreter, Jansons’ performance unfolded in a single stream of continuous thought, revealing a seam of volcanic substance beneath the discursive surface.
Such music is meat and drink to the Bavarians, whose large, integrated sound – the opposite of a show-off band – made the best possible case for Strauss’s grandiloquent orchestration.
Sibelius’s Second Symphony had the same immaculate polish, but the sound was almost too homogeneous and highly calibrated for its own good: one longed for a flavour of individuality.
Jansons’ interpretation was Olympian in the Karajan mould, emphasising sonic largesse and granite-like atmosphere at the expense of symphonic struggle and temperamental extreme. On its own terms it was mightily impressive, but it ended with a sense of climax without catharsis.
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