The programme booklet gave an immediate clue as to the main linking element of this concert: a clarinet stood proud on the cover. Inside, an essay explored the instrument’s associations with the human voice – distant, longing or longed-for. That is how it appears in the ‘bardic’ solo that opens Sibelius’s First Symphony, it argued, while noting that the dedicatee of Weber’s F minor Concerto, which had slipped in under my radar to replace the originally announced Mozart Symphony, was renowned for his voice-like sound and flexibility on the instrument. The girl in Bartòk’s Miraculous Mandarin is embodied – or envoiced – by the clarinet.

Andreas Ottensamer © Anatol Kotte | Mercury Classics DG
Andreas Ottensamer
© Anatol Kotte | Mercury Classics DG

Otherwise, you might think, these three works don’t necessarily have very much in common. And broadly speaking you’d be right. But what primarily linked the Sibelius and Bartók, at least, was the quality of the performances under Mariss Jansons. The orchestral virtuosity one can take as read, but Jansons has a special knack, it seems, for bringing extra brilliance to any band he conducts: there’s discipline with a sense of delight, precision with a smile, intensity without tension.

And the Berliner Philharmoniker’s sound under Jansons feels more transparent, higher-lying, with the strings, taking their cue in the Sibelius from Wenzel Fuchs’s playing of that first clarinet solo, really singing their lines with one yearning, limpid voice. The opening phrases of the finale were glorious, too, and, with the brass kept on a short leash and the wind encouraged to work as a team as well as displaying their individual brilliance, the orchestra was never allowed to fall back on its default burnished tone.  

Sonically it was a vivid reading, as well as a beautiful and stunningly executed one: in the contrast between the primal strum of the strings and the winds’ delicate responses at the start of the scherzo, for example, the urgent excitement of the fugato writing half way through the finale, or the grand opening-out of the Tchaikovskian climax. Jansons’s approach was arguably more a case of white-hot intensity than the icy-white vastness one typically ascribes to Sibelius, but this was a thrilling, gratifying performance nonetheless.

Orchestra and conductor offered similar brilliance in the Bartók, which came across as much as a virtuoso showcase as an evocation of the original pantomime’s sordid, sweaty scenario. Only in the final minutes’ dash to the finish line did Jansons’s unerring sense of balance give way, as the clattering percussion and brass masked the strings’ exertions. The solos from clarinet and other wind instruments in the central section were dangerously seductive, the full-orchestral clang and clamour impossible to resist.

The Weber, however, struggled to assert itself between two such vivid scores, so vividly performed. It served as a showcase for the orchestra’s other clarinet principal, Andreas Ottensamer, and there was no faulting his advocacy. He was able to wind his silken, slightly breathy tone around anything the work threw at him – scale or arpeggio, arpeggio or scale. He sang out the melodies with all the flexibility and soulfulness one could want.

The problem lay with the work itself, here performed only for the third time by the orchestra (previous occasions being in 1887 and 1938). Composed in haste in 1811, it features a first movement exposition that sounds like a mash-up of the opening movements Mozart’s minor-key piano concertos but which then dissolves, like much of the jolly finale, into rather too much noodling and footling from the soloist against orchestral oom-cha-cha-cha-ing. It’s telling, perhaps, that one of the score’s finest moments comes in the horn writing in the Adagio, which looks forward to Der Freischütz, premiered a decade later.

The piece provided a pleasant interlude, no doubt, and there was no faulting Ottesamer’s playing, or the conscientiousness of his colleagues’ support under Jansons. The concert’s main interest and excitement, however, lay elsewhere. 

****1