Venue: National Concert Hall, Taipei
Performers: Mariss Jansons (conductor), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (official)
Program (or here):
Symphony in G, Hob. I/100 "Military"
What a marvellous orchestra Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BRSO) is! This is the Rolls Royce of the orchestras. For once, one needs not worry about anything mechanical; just relax and enjoy the drive. The gear-shifting was so smooth that one barely noticed it -- such as in Richard Strauss' tone poem when the melodies were often played by a sequence of instruments in turns. I have heard Berliner Philharmoniker and Staatskapelle Berlin and, to my ears, BRSO is every inch their equal, with phenomenally good musicians. Mariss Jansons picks two pieces for today's program. From the early pioneers of Classical symphony, we have one of Haydn's London symphonies: Hob. I/100 in G major. And then, a twentieth-century non-symphony Sinfonie: Strauss' tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. He couldn't have found better programs to showcase his wonderful orchestra.
Jansons is renowned for his impeccable musicianship and technical facility. His superb command of rhythm is in ample display in Haydn's G major "Military Symphony". The very "exposed" writing of Haydn poses a great challenge to the conductor and the players. It is either played right, or else dull and falling apart. Jansons and his team rose to the occasion and gave it an idiomatic performance, full of wit and vibrancy. He also added theatricality by having the three musicians of the "Turkish instruments" (triangle, cymbals and bass drum) leave the stage after the conclusion of the second movements, knowing fully well that they would be needed at the end of the last movement. I thought it was utterly unconventional to have musicians leaving the stage only to come back later (and whispered to Ping as such). Little did I know that these three musicians would show up from behind the audience at the key moment, marching toward the stage with an additional person carrying the Austro-Hungarian imperial emblem of the Double-headed Eagle. A stunt, yes, but what an entertaining one!
After the intermission, it was Richard Strauss' biggest (with wind machine and thunder sheet to start with), and longest tone poem (only Ein Heldenleben Op. 40 and Aus Italien Op. 16 approach it in length). Eine Alpensinfonie is also Strauss's farewell to this music form. He would continue to compose many outstanding operas and lieder among others, but Eine Alpensinfonie remained his last tone poem. The sheer size and thick texture of the orchestration present serious problems for the performers. Some of the brass parts are also fiendishly difficult. Listen to the occasional messy brass passages in the live recording (Proms 2012) with Wiener Philharmoniker and Bernard Haitink, you see that even VPO can be fallible. (The performance was good nonetheless.) However, under good hands, it is a terrific vehicle to showcase the virtuosity of the orchestra and the conductor. Jansons and the orchestra were nearly perfect in the execution of this enormous piece. It had all the momentum and drive, but still maintained a degree of transparency for Strauss' contrapuntal writing. To listen to orchestral playing of such superlative level live in concert was sheer joy!
If I could wish for anything on top of this wonderful performance, I would ask for just a touch more vitality in Haydn, such as in Leonard Bernstein's legendary recordings. (*1) In Strauss, a tiny bit more visceral impact and even better clarity and transparency in the orchestral playing, as in Herbert von Karajan's classic account(*2), would have made it an instant classic. Note however, this is really quibble to a nearly perfect concert. The only genuine fault of the entire evening was the preconcert talk, in which the speaker made a few blatantly false statements without being challenged on spot.(*3) Since this concert was sponsored by the National Theater & Concert Hall, I was surprised by the carelessness of the planning in this regard. Needless to say, I appreciate NTCH's efforts of bringing this wonderful team to Taichung and Taipei and have nothing but praise otherwise.(*4)
The hall is very near sold-out for the evening, if any seat was left at all, while the next day's performance was completely sold out months in advance. (I knew it as I had sought tickets in vain....) Jansons gave no encore at the end, but really there was no need to add to near perfection.
(*1) Strangely enough, as much as I admire Lenny's Haydn, I have always felt that the Military was my least favorite Haydn from this maestro. Is this a particularly difficult piece to pull off perfectly, I wonder.
(*2) In general, I am not a great admirer of Karajan. However, I feel that his recordings on Richard Strauss and especially Arnold Schoenberg have never been equaled. Indeed, it is nothing short of magic to be able to perform Schoenberg with such clarity.
(*3) The reader might wonder why I should show up in the preconcert talk at all. Well, I am a visitor, and I consider these talks my opportunity to feel the pulse of the local music activities and attend them whenever I can.
(*4) NTCH has been very good in selecting knowledgeable speakers for preconcert talks in the past in my very limited experience. I wonder what went wrong with this supposedly major event.