The best came last. The conductor Mariss Jansons always loves an encore and he chose a real corker for the first of his Proms with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, or at least a part of it (the last four minutes or so). Brilliantly played, it had everything – wit, drama, extreme contrasts, shimmeringly unworldly sounds typical of Ligeti, and a tremendous drive that sent the music spinning excitingly to its conclusion.
This encore was also a reminder that Jansons can sometimes pick an unexpected piece out of the bag. So much of the time his concerts are limited to a handful of favourite works and this one was otherwise no exception with its pairing of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
It is 10 years since Jansons became chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, thereby dashing the hopes of many other orchestras round the world (though not the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, of which he is simultaneously chief conductor). In that time he has honed the Bavarians’ playing with his renowned skill for precision and clarity, though his performances now do not always have the same, high level of adrenalin.
It is – remarkably – no less than 20 years since Mitsuko Uchida last appeared at the BBC Proms. In the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall her highly intimate and intense playing of the Beethoven concerto held a capacity audience on the edge of their seats. Jansons provided a trim classical backdrop, with peremptory strings setting the tone in the slow movement, and Uchida responded with balm and poetry, not to mention a few finger slips. Her rapt encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite in G, boasted trills made in heaven.
The performance of the Berlioz was full of imaginative detail. In the earlier movements Jansons entered into Berlioz’s fevered imagination to find intoxicating combinations of instrumental sounds, especially among the woodwind, and the distant thunder from off-stage timpani worked superbly. But this symphony should also be a wild ride, where Jansons is reluctant to loosen his grip. The march to the scaffold was not a life-or-death experience. The cauldron at the witches’ sabbath was never quite on the boil, however skilfully the playing bubbled away.