Friday, February 16, 2007

Orchestral Ecstasy, Concertgebuow, Barbican Hall

The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under its conductor Mariss Jansons spent the weekend giving a Saturday evening of symphonies -Schubert 5, Bruckner 1 - and a Sunday afternoon of mainly French music (February 10 and 11). The evening concert was well played but nothing special, the Schubert over-accented (as if it were Beethoven) and the Bruckner lacking in the warmness of heart it needs if it is not to appear one of the composer's least impressive works. But the Sunday afternoon was something else, one of the best orchestral concerts I have had the luck to hear in a quarter-of-a-century. This was a concert to remember,, music-making of a brilliant, mind-blowing and heart-warming nature, to cherish with memories of the great conductors of the last sixty years that I have reviewed, to be put beside Bernstein, Stokowski, Furtwangler, Walter and Beecham, particularly Beecham because of the warmth, the instinctive feeling for the way the music should sound, for inducing a wonderful orchestra to play its best and reveal the very soul of the composers. Excuse the personal, but I had the feeling, of ecstasy nearly a dozen times.

What is that feeling? Something like an orgasm but an orgasm of the senses, not a sexual one, a feeling of self-transcendence that makes the body shudder and tingle, "Rarely, rarely cometh thou. spirit of delight" says Shelley. Well,, it cane on Sunday afternoon. In spades. First, the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz. The big climaxes were power driven but there were delicacies too, the rustle of those tiny cymbals round the edge of the tambourine as well as the brazen clash of the big cymbals. Oh. those trombones of the Concertgebouw, what a noble sound the trio of players make !'

The second item was La Mer of Debussy, begun in the Burgundian Hills and the orchestration, finish in the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. The horns were magnificent, horns of elf land but also of heavenly pomp. The first flute of this Dutch band, would you believe it, comes from Wales, Emily Beynon, a player and a musician of rare calibre. The oboes were fine too, the bassoons the very best you could imagine. The first trumpet shone like the sun on the ocean, the harps like the glitter of spume. The divided cellos in the first movement sang like angels. And throughout the afternoon the little man from Latvia, Mariss Jansons controlled, but never bossed, he cajoled his men and women to play like possessed creatures. The end of Debussy's seascapes came with vast waves of sound surrounding that monumental last theme.

After the interval the orchestra slimmed down to a handful of players for Folk-Songs of Berio, songs from America, France, Armenia, Italy, Sardinia, the Auvergne and Azerbaijan. Clever, touching arrangements, some deep, some piquant, some with the gift to be simple. The singer was the conductor's fellow Rigan Elina Garanca, mezzo-soprano, tall, blond, elegant, powerful voice, but capable of subtlety. This was a connoisseur’s treat.

Some have tried to see pending disaster, civilisation's decline and general doom in Ravel's La Valse. It is more likely nothing of the sort. The composer just wanted to write a waltz and he did so, a waltz to end all waltzes, an enticing, seductive, glamorous, swaying waltz, the very apotheosis of the waltz, superbly orchestrated, a WOW of a waltz. Jansons and the Concertgebouw gave it everything they had which was plenty, nobody in the audience was underwhelmed.

The Ravel over, there was a mighty ovation broken by Jansons picking up his baton and launching into...surprise, surprise, the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, primal Italian passion, wild applause, some reached for their coats, many others stood and cheered. Jansons looked pleased but not valedictory. He picked up his baton and gave us another surprise; Hungarian this time, not Turkey (thank goodness) but a march, Berlioz’s grand razzmatazz which he spatchcocked into The Damnation of Faust. This again reminded me of Beecham, it was a favourite lollipop of his; both Jansons and Beecham treated it with panache and bravura, a brilliant and spine-tingling finish to a truly memorable concert.

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