It is often true that the most accomplished orchestras produce the least exciting performances. There's a slackening of seriousness that sets in when you have the finest players in the world at your fingertips, most especially in core repertoire, the vicissitudes of which the musicians will have mastered many moons ago. With its peerless blend and impeccable technique, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra could easily be such an orchestra. Yet the two performances it gave under Mariss Jansons at the Barbican last week were thrilling, from the early brilliance of Schubert's Third Symphony to the sweep of Mascagni's Intermezzo: the first of two encores that turned lollipops into something approaching high art.
Is there a happier symphony orchestra in the world? I doubt it. Had I jammed my fingers into my ears, which would have been a very silly thing to do, I would still have been deeply impressed by the RCO. Instead of luxuriating in the beauty of their collective sound or the perfection of their chording, its musicians are thoroughly, uniformly, and visibly engaged with the music and with their conductor. For his part, this un-showy, deeply musical maestro, whose baton technique is matchlessly clear and eloquent, produced interpretations that were both thoroughly prepared and ceaselessly surprising.
Jansons' Schubert was aerated yet focused, refined yet vital, his account of Bruckner's Third Symphony devout in its slow movements and edgily demotic in its dance-hall finale. Berlioz's Carnaval romain was flamboyant yet disciplined, while La mer dazzled with musicality, most particularly from the brass. Berio's exquisitely scored Folk Songs, which have overtaken Canteloube in popularity, were delivered with grit and passion by Elina Garanca, and the half-seductive, half-terrifying interpretation of La valse looked forward to horrors far worse than those imagined by Ravel in 1919. These were consummately musical and intelligent performances, and I shall be listening eagerly to the Radio 3 broadcasts later this week, without fear of bumping into Tchaikovsky.
Having heard that Madama Butterfly is now officially racist, I locked the doors and put my headphones on to listen to The Rake's Progress and Mazepa for fear of being exposed as hirsuitist or scandaphobic, though some of my best friends are bearded Swedish ladies. The matinee broadcasts of The Rake's Progress - the second of three recordings conducted by Stravinsky - and Valery Gergiev's 1998 recording of Mazeppa were highlights of a misleadingly titled week that frequently saw me switching off the radio only minutes after switching it on. Nothing against Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, you understand. But without checking The Tchaikovsky Experience playlists in advance, this bizarre coupling of two composers with nothing in common beyond their nationality and prolific output for the ballet too often led to the sort of splutter brought about by picking up a mug presumed to contain coffee and tasting tea instead.
Worst served, inevitably, was Morning on 3. Unlike the more militant Radio 3 message-board posters, I rather like the school-run mish-mash and the honeyed murmurings of Penny Gore. But the Tchaikinskian juxtaposition of The Jurist's Song and The Song of the Nightingale left me reeling. I'd hesitate to call a moritorium on saturation programming per se, but we'd have learned much more about Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky had their music been programmed with that of their contemporaries rather than each other.Reuse content