Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw can claim the most enduring historical connection with Mahler’s symphonies of any orchestra due to their erstwhile principal conductor Willem Mengelberg, who invited Mahler to Amsterdam to conduct the Third and Fourth Symphonies in 1903 and 1904 respectively and after the composer’s death became one of his chief disciples. In Amsterdam, Mahler’s music soon came to be programmed more frequently than any other composer’s, giving rise in 1920 to a Mahler Festival tradition which involved Mengelberg conducting all the orchestral works in the space of three weeks, some of them, such as the Sixth Symphony at the inaugural festival, twice in one concert.
The Concertgebouw’s programming is more balanced now but Mahler remains a cornerstone of their repertoire, and is in safe if not always conventional hands with current principal conductor Mariss Jansons. To that end, it was difficult to understand what he was striving for in the opening to this First Symphony. The ethereal seven-octave A in the strings and introduction of the falling fourth in the winds (the symphony’s thematic kernel) can be taken as the mysterious stirrings of nature or as something of greater tension, if one notes the exact placement of Mahler’s marking ‘Wie ein Naturlaut’ (‘As if voiced by nature’) as applying to the fourths alone and follows Theodor Adorno’s observation of the pedal note as an industrialized sound (the unpleasant whistling of a steam engine, he called it); but Jansons’ reading, lacking in character and yet far off from a potentially curious inertness, avoided these approaches and left a vacuum in their place. The rest of the movement unfolded flowingly, give or take the winds occasionally racing ahead of the strings, but remained unusually dull for this conductor, with interest limited to aspects of the playing – the distinctive timbre of the horns’ soft playing, produced with throat vibrato, easing into their fuller golden sound, or the celli playing much of the movement on the D string with a muted take on the famous Mengelberg portamento. A boisterous coda livened things up a little and its vibrancy carried over into a second movement taken at an agreeable tempo – neither stilted nor racing, its lilt evoked the Ländler’s rusticity without affected leadenness. Jansons’ gift for finding an elusive balance in matters of expression was also shown with the lurching modulations into D major, leaned into with ideal weight, and the return of the portamento, never anachronistic or mannered, in the Trio.
The Ländler had been capped with an unconvincing accelerando commenced much earlier than Mahler indicates in the score, and unproductive infidelity also characterized a slow movement stripped of many its distinguishing features, most glaringly the wraithlike timbre of the violins’ col legno which the scoring so carefully accommodates. The klezmer-inflected passage was done in Bernstein’s pronounced vein, but while registering as an interruption – strings were again behind, though their slowness to catch up spoke revealingly – it remained integral to the movement. Something of a klezmerized accent continued in the wind and brass playing of the final movement, offering the first convincing instance of Jansons reappraising the music as he is typically inclined. Mahler’s flare-ups came and went with a natural spontaneity, and a unifying impulse connected the movement’s turbulent, lyrical and jubilant sections while denying none of the introspective moments their inward quality or indeed allowing the symphony to conclude in too grotesquely triumphalist a manner.
Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, a work premièred by Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, had preceded the Mahler and was notable for receiving the single most sensational performance I have heard at this year’s festival. Sporting hair from a 1970s kung fu movie and a baggy, untucked polka dot shirt paired with tuxedo trousers, violinist Leonidas Kavakos might have been mistaken for not taking the conservative Salzburg Festival very seriously – an impression belied by the integrity and artistry of his performance, which resisted obvious effects and showed a profound understanding of the score. There was place in his performance for charisma and flair too – punishing technical passages were dispatched with electrifying panache – but with gaze firmly fixed on his strings he concerned himself with playing the concert at hand and not the audience.
The Second Violin Concerto is a tightly packed work, denser than any of the piano concertos, and presses forwards fluidly, its tensions kept under the surface rather than laid bare as in Bartók’s earlier violin concerto. The rhapsodic breadth of Kavakos’ first subject made for a well-crafted contrast with the second, notorious as a joke made by Bartók at Schoenberg’s expense (it is twelve-tone and yet very much tonal), and done here as a playful rejoinder, unmistakably in the idiom of the Second Viennese School and all the more mesmeric for it. Jansons evidently knows his way around this score and got disciplined, responsive playing from the Concertgebouw, with Bartók’s various instrumental effects and contrapuntal felicities colourful but never too obtrusive. The orchestra’s powerful opening statements to the second movement met with a withdrawn response from Kavakos and in a spellbinding feat of pacing the variations gradually bloomed into life, while the last movement, a sonata-allegro, was developmental in its own right as well as a satisfying summation of the work and barnstorming finale.