Cosmopolitan musical wonder onstage in BA
For the Herald
Sometimes one comes out of a concert convinced that the evening was memorable and will hardly be matched during the season. That was my feeling when I went to the so-called Colón Abono Especial and heard what I felt had been the unbeatable combination of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (BRO) with its Principal Conductor Mariss Jansons and the long-awaited debut in BA of pianist Mitsuko Ushida. You will probably think this a bit rash on my part, if you think of the promised Argerich-Barenboim-West Eastern Divan Orchestra in August; let´s wait and see...
The BRO, Jansons and Ushida offered three concerts at the Colón in successive days, the first and third for the Mozarteum Argentino, the second for the Abono Especial. One item didn´t change: Beethoven´s Fourth Concerto. Different symphonies occupied the Second Part: Brahms’ Second, the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz and Shostakovich’s No. 5 I couldn’t hear the first concert, so I´m commenting on the other two.
The Bavarian Radio Orchestra has long been one of the best in the world and has had prominent Principal Conductors since its inception, when it was founded by Eugen Jochum in 1949 (unfortunately, the great Jochum never came here). He was succeeded by the talented Rafael Kubelik in 1961, and three years later I had the enormous pleasure of hearing them in Paris playing the mighty Mahler Ninth (Kubelik recorded all of them with the BRO). From 1983 on, Colin Davis took over, and from 1993 the PC was Lorin Maazel, who brought the Orchestra to the Mozarteum in 1995 in admirable concerts. Since 2003, their conductor is Jansons.
You will remember that he was here last year at the helm of what many believe to be the best orchestra of all, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. Before that, he had already visited us with the Oslo Philharmonic: he converted it into a world-class outfit. I believe he also came with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (he was a pupil of Evgeny Mravinsky, longtime conductor of that orchestra when it was called the Leningrad Philharmonic). Jansons is now 71 and remains in full form.
I have long known Mitsuko Uchida for her recordings, as she has done no less than the integral of Mozart’s Sonatas and Concerti and Schubert´s Sonatas. The marvellous sensibility, command of style and consumate technique of them has now been amply proved by a Beethoven’s Fourth that will remain in the annals of the Colón as a radiant milestone. She looks agile and flexible at 66 and she projects from the very beginning the sort of concentration that will keep the hearer alert throughout, as the revelations unfold unceasingly in such well-known music, without ever miscalculating a finger or a foot. Some felt she lacked a degree of strength, but this isn´t a barnstorming concerto; instead, it has some of Beethoven’s most poetical ideas.
It was a good thing that her encores showed her innate taste and delicacy in other composers: the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata Nº 10, and a Bach Sarabande. One important point: as a recent interview pointed out that she travels with her own Steinway, I suppose this was the case, and I can only report that it sounded very well.
It is a special pleasure to hear an orchestra and a conductor that take the accompanying job with the seriousness and care of detail needed if you aim for a great total performance. The orchestra sounded clean but warm, solid but subtle, and always hand-in-glove with Uchida.
I am a veteran and I have heard dozens of Fantastics, some of them very good (Van Otterloo, Cluytens, Markevich, Barbirolli, Mehta), so I won´t exaggerate and claim this as the best, but it was certainly in a sustained high level. It showed the qualities of the orchestra: perfect tuning and agreement between the various groups; great discipline but always full of life; first-rate soloists; and that special “Mittel-Europa” feeling of tradition in their bones.
Of course, Jansons has worked with them for more than ten years and he and the orchestra are evidently in full accord. Jansons never exaggerates; he makes the orchestra sound very powerful but also brings them to the wispiest of pianissimi, and they keep the quality of timbre at every level of dynamics or speed. His tempi are sane, his phrasing is orthodox. No surprises from him, but honest and positive music-making.
His encores were a funny and off beat choice, the Albéniz Tango as arranged with humour by Rodion Shchedrin, and the Ochs Waltz that ends Richard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier: subtlety in the first and brilliance in the second.
The third concert gave me another rendition of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, fractionally less perfect, and then a stupendous Shostakovich Fifth: Jansons is a specialist that has recorded all 15 symphonies of the great Russian (he studied at least some with Mravinsky). Jansons went through the experience of the USSR and certainly knows all about the composer’s troubles with Stalin: his tempi and phrasing showed complete penetration of this masterpiece´s veiled resistance. The orchestra was simply amazing in every particular.
I am sure that the chosen encore had for Jansons a political meaning: the frenetic Interlude from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is exciting and was quite a goodbye in their terrific playing, but this opera angered Stalin so much that Shostakovich feared for his life!