Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons, Barbican, London – review

Mariss Jansons never used to be a Brucknerian. In the years when he was forging his reputation, in St Petersburg and then Oslo, it was Beethoven, Berlioz, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky that dominated his tour programmes, and later Mahler. They still feature strongly. But in the late 1990s, after he suffered a heart attack, the Latvian conductor began to explore Bruckner’s mature symphonies, sensing in them a quieter, broader pulse than had hitherto occupied his career, and doubtless finding within their architecture a comforting spiritual resonance. They have since become central to his repertoire – but, even so, it was surprising to find all three programmes of his latest London visit dominated by Bruckner (the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies each paired with a classical concerto).

Even for a conductor as popular as Jansons, that spells lack of variety, a charge compounded by Bruckner’s unvarying symphonic formulae. When a residency by an ensemble as versatile as the Royal Concertgebouw runs to three consecutive nights, we want a menu that demonstrates its range. Judging by Thursday’s opening concert, Bruckner is not the Amsterdam orchestra’s forte – at least, not when compared to Jansons’ other charge, the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

This performance of the Fourth Symphony was well measured, decently paced and fluently terraced. It seemed the opposite of ponderous. And yet, in spite of Jansons’ racy crescendos and easy sense of proportion, it never took off. It was a countrified Bruckner – open-hearted, intermittently exuberant and quite jocular, especially in the Scherzo – rather than monumental. The Royal Concertgebouw produced a light, almost delicate sound, far removed from the weighty muscularity of its leading Germanic counterparts. If the benefit lay in transparency of texture, with generously articulated cello themes and neat brass work, the penalty was a complete absence of cathartic majesty as the finale reached its climax.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto, in a well-studied, intermittently charming but somewhat formal rendition by Frank Peter Zimmermann. Given the reputation of both soloist and orchestra in the Romantic and early 20th-century repertoire, it seemed a bit of a waste.

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