How might we define an ‘Amsterdam sound’? We generalise freely about the characteristic sound of Berlin, with its red-hot fervour, or London, that “ne plus ultra”  of crystalline perfection; where do our illustrious Dutch brethren come into all this?

Judging by the first concert of the Concertgebouw’s high-profile Barbican residency with their chief conductor Mariss Jansons, it is, if anything, somewhere between the two. If any music is sufficiently apt to show off an orchestra’s pedigree, Mozart and Bruckner fit the bill splendidly. Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major (with Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Bruckner’s “Romantic”  Symphony no. 4, we saw an orchestra capable by turns of elegant restraint and then of fearsome depth and power, sound kaleidoscopic under Jansons’s mercurial, unassuming direction. What a shame, then, that some unfortunate technical errors and interpretative missteps from both soloist and Jansons meant the performance didn’t excite quite as much as one would hope from this elite ensemble.

Mariss Jansons © Anne Dokter
Mariss Jansons
© Anne Dokter

As a rule, I tend to enjoy the orchestral passages of concertos rather more than the solos anyway; however, even doing my best to maintain interest in Zimmermann’s playing, I found the Concertgebouw’s contributions far more bewitching. This isn’t to say he played without the requisite poise, beauty of tone, or levity of phrase; simply that the Concertgebouw, even pared down for this exquisite pearl of a work, could not have sounded finer had it tried. Effortlessly beautiful phrasing and a miraculous unity of intention were married to a really stylish, smooth rhetorical disposition, lines in graceful conversation atop a sonorous orchestral texture.

Zimmermann, for his part, sounded, frankly, monochrome against such an accompaniment, mezzo-forte and piano seemingly the only two regularly occurring dynamics; very beautiful they were too, but one wished for a little more variety. What marked the orchestra’s performance as a cut above was the effortless flexibility Jansons drew from his band, but Zimmermann for me failed to follow their lead, opting instead for a hands-off approach which came off sounding rather dull. So too in the encore, an admittedly rapturously received Prelude from Bach’s E major Partita. Impressive, yes, to play so many notes so quickly, but sadly lacking in substantive phrasing; I was left cold.

How often do we hear Bruckner’s symphonies described as “cathedrals in sound” ? Brick upon brick, monoliths straining heavenward, reverence for the divine immanent in beatific, imminent architecture. It’s a curious metaphor for Bruckner; Stravinsky’s endlessly layered repeating motifs seem to me a better fit for a cathedral. Bruckner, though working decisively in solid, defined blocks, lacks somewhat for mortar, particularly in the earlier symphonies; one does not build a cathedral simply by laying brick next to brick. Transitions are often a little arbitrary (from the end of the first movement’s main theme, all that leads us to the second is a horn octave), and take a little work to convince.

Where Bruckner gifts us with truly magical music, then, it is to be treasured and taken seriously, and I was disappointed that Jansons didn’t necessarily deliver in this regard. As the opening horn call (minus an unfortunate couple of splits from an otherwise exemplary principal horn) rings out over a soft underlay of string tremolo – strings never too quiet, as one often hears, from Jansons, who relished every line and made it matter, all too rare a detail in performances of Bruckner – the orchestra wakes up, more and more instruments joining in and augmenting the fundamental, trademark ‘Bruckner rhythm’, before a tumultuous crescendo leads us to the first, ecstatic, tutti. All of this introduction was splendid from the RCO and Jansons, the wind perfectly in sync and in tune, the strings dark and mysterious, and the final crescendo absolutely earth-shaking.

RCO © Anne Dokter
RCO
© Anne Dokter

But then – tragedy! – an inexplicable tempo change for the tutti, completely breaking the flow. Emphasising the bricks over the architecture in this music is a cause for concern, as it is frequently disjointed enough. The sprawling last movement, in particular, with its direct repetitions and indeterminate structure, needs attention to create flow, and tension, attention I found surprisingly lacking from Jansons.

This despite an absolutely radiant-sounding RCO. Never have I heard an orchestra play so together and with such admirable unity of purpose. Crescendos and diminuendos went to the very back desks of the huge string section, wind and brass contributing to overwhelming and frequently split-second dynamic shifts. Brass articulation, despite occasional note errors, was laser-accurate and always together, the trumpets in particular managing to shine over a mighty lower brass contingent. En masse, the RCO was resplendent; louder than a sell-out hall loudly and heartily applauding and cheering, and capable of exquisite delicacy in pianissimo to boot. Ultimately, though there’s no denying this was an impressive performance from the RCO and Jansons, a few details let the whole down; then again, that’s cathedrals for you…