Mariss Jansons conducting the BRSO
© Meisel

Mariss Jansons’ earliest musical memories are largely operatic ones. He was born in Nazi-occupied Riga in 1943, son of the great Latvian conductor, Arvīds Jansons, and soprano Iraida Jansone. When Mariss was only three, his father was chosen by Yevgeny Mravinsky to be his Assistant Conductor at the Leningrad Philharmonic. The rest of the family eventually joined him in Leningrad ten years later, where the young Mariss would succeed his father as Mravinsky’s assistant, then Yuri Temirkanov’s, at a time of great transition in the former Soviet Union. Russia is still Jansons’ home – “I have the brain of a Latvian and the heart of a Russian” he recently stated – and he speaks to me on the phone from St Petersburg. We begin our conversation by reflecting on his childhood.

“My parents both worked in Riga’s opera house. They took me into work every day because they didn’t have a babysitter. I spent my days until I went to school surrounded by opera, hearing rehearsals, and later performances, so I heard a lot of opera. I knew almost all the ballets in the repertoire of Riga Opera House too.” When he was four, Jansons remembers listening to the Waltz from Swan Lake played on the radio, requested by his parents because young Mariss had wanted to hear it!

“I liked symphonic music very much from an early age. When I was poorly one day and had to miss school and stay in bed, I remember asking my mother to give me Papa’s score of Beethoven’s Fifth! By that time, I could already read music and I followed the score many times. Then one day, when I was six, Father started to teach me the violin and then I went to music school, so music was always part of my life.”

The move to Leningrad was pivotal. The Philharmonic’s reputation under the fearsome Mravinsky was legendary – together they premiered many of Shostakovich’s works and their recordings of Tchaikovsky continue to astonish. “It was a fantastic orchestra,” admits Jansons, “with a fantastic sound, a very cultivated sound, especially the strings. There was a big difference between Moscow orchestras and the St Petersburg Philharmonic – it was the best orchestra in Russia and is the best orchestra in Russia.” But then Perestroika came and many of the musicians, particularly the strings, went abroad, forcing a rebuilding process. “This is a country full of strong musicians because the standard of music schools is very high, so Temirkanov gave a lot of attention to building up the orchestra again. It was a very difficult ten years.”

From 1979, Jansons spent twenty years as Music Director at the Oslo Philharmonic, a tenure that cemented his reputation as a great orchestral technician. “The orchestra was young and I was young and we were very enthusiastic. We worked very hard and were very successful – it became one of the leading orchestras in Europe and we did a lot of wonderful recordings together. I conducted a very broad repertoire, helping them to develop from a provincial orchestra into a very good one.”

Mariss Jansons
© Meisel

In was in Oslo in 1996 that Jansons suffered a heart attack, conducting the closing pages of La bohème. He must have feared it was a case of history repeating itself – Arvid had died from a heart attack on the podium in 1984, conducting the Hallé in Manchester. But Mariss survived and was fitted with a defibrillator, scaling back – initially at least – his conducting commitments. Last spring, conducting his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, he looked extremely frail, although was looking stronger by his November visit, when he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal. Did the heart attack change his approach to making music?

“Oh yes, very much. In such a moment when you are between life and death, you start to analyse what life actually is. Why are we here? What is important? I’m not Mahler, but I’ve raised for myself these questions that Mahler asks many times in his symphonies. I feel I’ve become much richer, a more profound musician, better at fulfilling slow tempos. I can’t say it’s completely changed my mentality but it’s given me new characteristics, new perspectives.”

Early this century, Jansons took the helm of not one, but two of the finest European orchestras, the BRSO and the Royal Concertgebouw. When asked about their respective qualities, he reflects on excellence in orchestral playing. “When you think about the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the BRSO, the Concertgebouw, the level is so high. Everything is first class. There was a ranking in Gramophone but it’s very difficult to do that in music… it’s not like sport. This group of leading orchestras is very special. The BRSO is a very spontaneous orchestra, very virtuosic, with a German sound, a cultivated sound and they can play wonderful pianissimos. In Amsterdam, meanwhile, there’s an intelligent sound, well balanced. Both orchestras have their individualities but both play at the highest level.” We pause to discuss the internationalisation of orchestral sound – “this comes through recordings and what you can do with microphones” – before considering the role of the conductor as a guardian of an orchestra’s character.

“When I went to Amsterdam and Munich,” he explains, “there were many journalists asking me what I wanted to change. I said ‘I don’t want to change anything, because they are great artists and great personalities. If they can learn something from me and I can learn something from them, then this will naturally evolve in a new direction.’”

The BRSO tours widely and I wondered how Jansons adapts to different halls. “We have acoustical rehearsals and in just 45 mins you must adapt. But an orchestra which travels a lot and is full of very intelligent musicians is quick to adapt. I, as conductor, must go into the hall to hear the balance. Sometimes what you hear on the stage is quite different from being in the hall. And once the public arrives, it’s a different sound again, but you adjust to these things in the concert.”

Mariss Jansons
© Meisel

The BRSO’s account of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances was very special and their new disc recorded from the concerts that spring is rightly drawing acclaim. Jansons has a great affinity with Russian music, yet he still professes that Beethoven stands above all others. “Every piece I conduct is my beloved piece in the moment I am conducting it and I give everything to perform it at the highest level.” I ask him about how he approaches rehearsals in terms of planning. “That is a very interesting question,” he states. “Rehearsals are extremely important. If you’ve been conducting for a long time, you know roughly how much time you’ll need. When you don’t rehearse enough, it’s bad. First class orchestras will play well in concert whatever, because their level is generally good, but they can be not so free and cannot give 100% if they are frightened of the music. It’s very important that the orchestra knows the music well enough to be free, to be spontaneous, so they can improvise. Too many rehearsals are also not good, because it becomes routine. You must find a right middle and this comes from experience.”  Does he have an ideal sound already in his head? “Absolutely. I should have an interpretation and a sound when I come to the orchestra. If you don’t know what you want, how will you know what to correct?”

This summer, Jansons leads performances of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame at the Salzburg Festival, an opera he last conducted in Stefan Herheim’s production at Dutch National. “It’s a great piece, absolutely his greatest opera,” he confesses. “Generally I enormously love conducting opera… but then I grew up in the opera house, so it’s my special passion.” The magic of that operatic childhood in Latvia evidently still casts its spell.

Article sponsored by Investment and Development Agency of Latvia.