Concertgebouw/Jansons, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Some orchestras - even one as fine as the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam - just don't have it in their sound to completely identify with certain composers. Splendid as Mariss Jansons' reading of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony "Leningrad" was, there was a sense in which the warmth and nobility of this orchestra conspired against it.

It was a little like hearing the piece in soft focus; the brutality, the discomfort, were somehow left on the page. It was impressive but never intimidating. How different from the unvarnished brilliance of Gergiev and the LSO last October.

Jansons launched the symphony in fine style, the resilience and forced optimism of the main theme fair bounding off the platform. But already the cover-and-cushion effect of the sound was evident in the blending of the wind and brass, and as the optimism drained, the Shostakovich pallor was nowhere. The now infamous toe-tapping "invasion" theme was so finessed in side-drum and sultry flute that it came close to losing its banality, and the pervasive rhythm can hardly be said to have steam-rollered all before it. Shostakovich throws more brass and percussion into this climax than anywhere else in his symphonic canon, but even at full stretch these players could never entirely be said to have shed nobility for brutality. We hadn't been to hell and back; surely what the composer - caught somewhere between Stalin and the Nazis - hoped to convey.

And so it continued. The bitter ironies of the Mahlerian scherzo were not so bitter. As in Mahler, bathos is as much a part of this music's DNA as pathos. And Jansons' players certainly didn't short-change us on the pathos. The curdled chorale and impassioned sarabande-like strings of the wonderful slow movement were memorable, as was that solo flute.

As Jansons proceeded to the now inevitable triumph his fabulous string basses seemed effortlessly to carry with them the hopes of all nations. There was a characteristic ratcheting-up of tension and tempo in the closing bars, which is not what I see written in the score - but Jansons does like his grandstanding final flourishes. It was, like so much of the performance, too easily reassuring.

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