After being in the same job for over a decade, one can only be thriving as never before or waning irrevocably. Marek Janowski has been the chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2002, and currently holds a contract for life. If the remarkable presence of his recordings in the landmark Berlin music shop Dussmann is anything to go by, he is enjoying very good musical health; a whole, well-placed stand is devoted to them.

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

Janowski also has a past life, one that includes, among many reputable engagements, a long track record in opera conducting. It is this dimension of his biography that flooded back to mind as the C minor initial bars of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture broke the ice and hauntingly accelerated the heart right away. Those few bars of music alone would have made the evening worthwhile, but the entire piece was seasoned with brilliance, not a mistimed pizzicato, nor an uncommitted sforzando. Here was an experienced shepherd leading his flock through the stormy score until its unravelling finale.

Then, through the ashes, emerged the cello of Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt in double stops opening Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony and only backed by the low laments of the double basses. Effectively a concerto, the piece chronologically followed the acclaimed War Requiem, and its aura can still very much be felt. In an amusing twist in history, Britten composed the symphony for Mstislav Rostropovich, who in turn awarded Schmidt the highest accolade in his renowned international cello competition. So one could easily be led to believe the piece was in good hands even before hearing it. In reality, it was not only in good hands, but also in sensitive, violent, luminous hands. Such is the very bare spectrum that a cellist must be able to cover for this work to reveal itself in all its greatness. Schmidt flaunted an assertive low register and high notes rich in overtones. He too proved his ability to hold dialogues with other members of the orchestra, a remarkable one being his resounding pizzicatos against the melody of the flute that closes the first movement. The second movement, adequately named Presto inquieto, gave him the full floor in the most ungrateful of manners: the demonic virtuosity that is necessary to merely dare to approach it is much more felt when it is lacking than when it is there in spades. So it would not have been hard to find this lukewarm, when it was in fact superbly performed. Schmidt still had his highest card to play, for nobody could have possibly resisted his expansive, dense and utterly compelling phrasing in the third movement, his cadenza paralysing the hall. A bright last movement put a liberating touch to an intense piece.

A dedicated essay could be written about the performance of the piece that closed the evening, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no.9 “From the New World”. The limelight came back to Janowski, energy oozing from his baton and entire body, and his loyal orchestra. This is arguably where they were more convincing as an ensemble. They built on each other’s strengths, singing some, wrapping around others, then interchanging roles. Without exception, all sections shone when the score gave them the opportunity to do so. Such was the build up to the ecstatic ending of the first movement that it felt unnatural to have to restrain the expression of enthusiasm. There was a palpable desire to cheer uncontrollably, if nothing else to let off some of the adrenalin.

 Come the second movement and the oboe played with what seemed like an infinite phrase, barely breathing in, generously breathing out into his instrument. He deservedly won a moving ovation at the end. But before then there would be time to smile at the invisible thread going back to Beethoven, the beginning of the scherzo unmistakably inspired by him. Self references here and in the last furious movement took us back at the beginning, or perhaps, just like for Dvořák, back home.

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