Vienna PO/Jansons, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The dark-hued fanfares that announce Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas Overture worked well as an opener, predictably imposing given the quality of the Viennese brass though it was only when the strings responded with the dynamically inflected first subject that you felt you were in the presence of a truly great orchestra. Mariss Jansons for his part has an admirable technique, a decisive manner and an attentive ear. Given the machinery of a quality band and the right musical vehicle he's the ultimate good driver, steering with ease and keeping surfaces polished. Mendelssohn's overture was judiciously shaped with softer passages given considerable delicacy.

Schumann's Second Symphony was more problematical, at least from an interpretative standpoint. Technically the playing was as accomplished as in the Mendelssohn, with tight ensemble, taut climaxes, warm textures, a disciplined sheen to the string lines and an unwavering ability to project. I'd say this is the orchestra's strongest virtue. But Schumann's Second is troubled by inner tensions, outwardly powerful but full of subtle half-lights that need sensitive handling. And while the trumpet-led slow introduction edged stealthily towards the main allegro, there was no mystery to speak of, the allegro itself being brilliant but unyielding, even a mite brutal. There's an important passage later on in the movement where brass choirs converse with quick-fire repeated notes, but Jansons and his band let it go for nothing. The scherzo was remarkable in that the faster outer sections enjoyed pin-sharp articulation, the violins retaining their tone even at speed, but the first trio section sounded angular, lacking in repose. The glorious adagio was beautifully played, well crafted in virtually every bar though it seemed more the craftsmanship of duty than of love. Best perhaps was the finale, vigorous and tough-grained though even there unsettling shifts in tempo and emphasis near the close were too securely regimented. Schumann's Second must leave room for doubt.

Jansons is at his best wherever orchestral colours shine brightest. Ravel's gallic take on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition had the Philharmonic performing at full throttle, swelling to a deafening triple-fortissimo as the arch of the Great Gate at Kiev drew suavely into earshot. With well-paced "promenades" between individual pictures, the rugged crescendo of the passing oxcart "Bydlo" and the exaggerated polarities between the "rich Jew" Samuel Goldenberg and the "poor Jew" Schmuyle were the highlights. And there were the encores. Being Christmas, and with Jansons a pupil of great Tchaikovsky maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky, music from The Nutcracker seemed an obvious first choice. Jansons conducted the regal pas de deux with real passion, softening the line almost as soon as the strings entered. Predictably the last shout went to Strauss, his Persian March, vaguely exotic, jaunty - and as it was by now well and truly home time, considerately brief.