Brahms provides a highlight in mixed outing from Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony

Sat Nov 09, 2019 at 2:18 pm
Mariss Jansons conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

A long career is more the rule than the exception for a great conductor: musical knowledge and experience accrue over the decades, even as the physical demands of performance become more difficult to sustain. 

But there comes a point when consistency starts to suffer, as masterful performances alternate night-to-night with rough ones. For Mariss Jansons, leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Friday night was visibly difficult.

At 76, Jansons has had one of the great conducting careers of the last half-century, including memorable tenures at the helm of a number of top orchestras. But he seemed physically exhausted on Friday evening, at times barely giving a beat and struggling to lift his arms as high as his score. The concertmaster often beat time with the scroll of his violin, suggesting that Jansons wasn’t entirely in control of the performance.

[Note: Carnegie Hall announced Saturday afternoon that Mariss Jansons has withdrawn from this evening’s concert due to illness. Vasily Petrenko will conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra program Saturday night.] 

The conductor’s difficulties threw cold water on the typically beaming warmth of his Bavarian orchestra. The Four Symphonic Interludes from Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo suffered the most, showing almost no definition in their balancing. The Waltz Scene had a fine, lilting bounce but there was little distinction in its levels; the sound was just one murky soup, with the brass often swallowing up the strings entirely. In the “Dreaming by the Fireside” scene, the orchestra brought an enchanting warmth into their tone, but the interpretation was still unfocused, its phrases not seeming to lead anywhere, and the final vignette, “Happy Ending,” was a complete muddle.

Diana Damrau joined for more Strauss, the Four Last Songs, which had problems of their own. The German soprano was announced as having a head cold, and indeed she sounded labored in the early going, with an especially hard edge in her upper register. The orchestra at least managed more clarity in “Frühling,” but quickly slipped back into sounding lost in their accompaniment of “September.” 

Damrau began to find her way in the third song of the set, “Beim Schlafengehen,” reining in her intensity to reveal simple phrases, turning to the subtle sensitivity that makes her such a wonderful interpreter of art song. She was similarly inward-looking in her approach to the grave reflections of “Im Abendrot,” drawing the audience into her intimate thoughts, even if the orchestra covered her a bit.

Concerns about Jansons only became keener at the start of the second half: the orchestra did not return to the stage for a good fifteen minutes after the audience was seated, and the conductor himself did not appear until several minutes thereafter.  

The performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that followed was by no means adventurous, proceeding at “stately” tempos out of the mid-century German conducting school. But it had all the polish and focus that were missing from the Strauss selections on the first half, and made for a compelling if by-the-book, rendition of a great warhorse.

The sound of the orchestra was restrained in the first movement, not exploring the extremes of dynamic contrast, but still achieving a seamless flow through the arching structure of the music with a crisp, penetrating sound and swelling phrases. The gem of this performance was the Andante moderato, where a sublime hush established the basis for everything else in the movement, from gorgeous, warm sighs to aching lyrical phrases, agitation, and finally quiet bliss.

An aggressively playful rendition of the scherzo showed a shining sound and boisterous energy, as the orchestra stomped heavily through the pounding celebration. Jansons at last appeared at his most engaged in the finale, drawing out a taut sound that perfectly fit the cold tension of the music. As in the first movement, this performance largely stayed away from dynamic extremes, sacrificing the possibility of massive power but managing to keep the feeling of inevitable progress towards doom that drives the movement through its many variations.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performs music by Weber, Mozart, and Shostakovich, with guest soloist Rudolf Buchbinder Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

10 Responses to “Brahms provides a highlight in mixed outing from Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2019 at 5:17 pm by Rebes

    I was there. It’s difficult to concentrate on the music while watching a dying man. Why are orchestras doing this? They are digging their own grave if attending a concert feels like a visit to an assisted living home.

  2. Posted Nov 09, 2019 at 7:33 pm by Paul

    I was there. By FAR the best thing on the program was the encore, Brahms Hungarin Dance #5. It was the only time all evening the orchestra jelled and played as one. The sound was sumptuous, balances were good, and there was honest to goodness musical enthusiasm from the orchestra.

  3. Posted Nov 09, 2019 at 8:53 pm by AndyHat

    On Saturday night: “Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons has fallen ill and is unable to conduct this evening’s performance. Carnegie Hall and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are grateful to Vasily Petrenko, who has agreed to conduct in his place.”

    Best wishes on a quick recovery to Maestro Jansons!

  4. Posted Nov 09, 2019 at 11:40 pm by Skim

    I went Saturday, and it was a totally different orchestra. An exciting, energetic, riveting, absolutely fabulous performance. Bravo to Petrenko.

  5. Posted Nov 10, 2019 at 1:02 am by Cathy

    To Rege: Shame on you! How about not kicking a good man when he’s down. Do you go to work when you’re sick? Probably not because you have sick days. Jansons was sick. He has a fantastic reputation and an extreme passion for what he does. I’m sure it was a difficult decision for him. Have some compassion!

  6. Posted Nov 10, 2019 at 8:31 am by Ninian Fergus

    I pray that Mariss retires to enjoy a long healthy life ahead of him. He will leave a magnificent legacy so needn’t worry!

  7. Posted Nov 11, 2019 at 12:23 am by Steve Pearson

    My wife and I were saddened and disappointed by the concert, but more by Janson’s obviously extremely poor health. We have probably enjoyed more great performances with him on the podium throughout the years than with any other conductor. Yet he probably should not have attempted what was a heroic task as it will leave a bittersweet memory for us.

    I truly hope he can recover but he seems to have aged ten years since we heard him just last year. We were walking down the stairs when they played the encore and yes it seemed like the energy hadn’t totally been gone.

  8. Posted Nov 11, 2019 at 3:20 pm by Robert Seber

    To Cathy: I assume you meant me with your reply (Rebes, not Rege). Were you at the concert? This wasn’t a sick day, this was a severely ill man attempting to conduct.

    Mr. Jansons has been a great conductor, and I wish him well. My point was not addressed to him, it was addressed to management of the BRSO. Mr. Jansons had cancelled all their concerts the week before in Europe, so his poor condition was well known, yet they flew him across the Atlantic.

    If I have a sick day, I get a day off and nobody worries much about it, but if I am severely ill and suggest to fly to Europe for an important meeting, somebody in my organization will stop me and plan for a replacement.

  9. Posted Nov 13, 2019 at 12:58 am by Geo.

    While the initial reply may have been slightly intemperate in choice of words, given how ashen and worn out Jansons looks in this photo and other recent photos, that first comment is closer to the mark that the latter commenter may want to admit. I can’t help but wonder if the Carnegie audience last Friday may have seen Jansons’ last American concert.

    The blame may not totally be with the orchestra, in terms of the wisdom of Jansons doing the transatlantic journey. In the past, Jansons has admitted to suffering very badly from jet lag. His recent health difficulties would only make this particular journey that much more of a risk.

    There needs to be an element of self-awareness on all sides, but particularly from Jansons. It may be that he loves conducting so much that he never wants to give it up, and no one wants to tell him otherwise. But his health may force the issue sooner or later, and sooner seems more likely. Maybe he can cut all concerts that require flights, and he can focus strictly on concerts in Munich and nearby German cities.

    What could be a plan there is for him to step down as chief conductor, take the title of conductor laureate, and focus on a very small number of concerts, saving his strength, while the BRSO searches for a successor. They’re probably doing that already on the quiet now, if they had any brains about it. It’s harsh to say this, but the good of the organization of the whole has to come first, and not of any one person, no matter how gifted.

  10. Posted Nov 27, 2019 at 11:41 pm by Kenneth Zimmerman

    There are some good comments here and I understand the criticism addressed to the organization and the precarious wisdom of the decision to allow an ill man who suffers from jet lag and a weak heart to fly across the Atlantic. Having said that, find some or the comments excessively cold-blooded. Yes, the collective should take precedence over the individual but this passionate committed man deserves all the latitude and consideration we can give him. The concert may have been a disaster–I admittedly was not there–but that is not the issue. The critics carp, some of the audience grumbles, but I admire the Maestro’ s pluck and resilience in taking the baton in spite of his severe indisposition. As for his being a “dying man,” who can say? If I had been there, I would have been applauding all the way. Janson’s has been providing music aficionados years of delight and inspired joy. May he recover and go on to do what God meant him to do from the start. Do not write him off just yet.

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