There are moments in a musician’s life which can be thought of as career defining. Janine Jansen’s current collaboration with Sir Antonio Pappano, both in the concert hall and in the recording studio, could well be considered such a moment. In this series of concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe touring the length and breadth of Europe, Jansen is certainly delving the depths of musical expressiveness while still having immense fun.

Janine Jansen
© Antwerp Symphony Orchestra | Jesse Willems

On stage in Antwerp's Queen Elisabeth Hall, Jansen proved to be a mesmerising soloist, and her partnership with Pappano, who was able to predict and shape each musical nuance with the greatest of ease (and all without a baton), was exquisite. For two musicians who openly relish the spontaneity of live performance and of constantly finding something new to say, this really was a thing of beauty.

Jansen was in total command of all the technical challenges posed by Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no.1 in D major, and her amazingly efficient bow arm and rock solid intonation served her well. The result was a surprisingly intimate sound, seemingly aided by the fabulous acoustics of this very modern and attractive concert hall. A mystical opening with a beautifully plaintive clarinet melody was contrasted by a much faster pizzicato section, propelling the orchestra ever forward at quite an exciting pace before relaxing into the cadenza where Jansen deliberately teased us with Prokofiev's deliberately meandering harmonies. Ferocious marcato passages in the third movement contrasted with swirling semiquavers, while incredibly clean and clear harmonics (suggesting music from another world) were juxtaposed against luscious melodic lines full of glissandi. The COE were the perfect partners in this relationship and knew exactly when to shine in the musical narrative.

Janine Jansen, Sir Antonio Pappano and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Antwerp Symphony Orchestra | Jesse Willems

After acknowledging the lengthy and rapturous applause, we were treated to a profound reading of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in C major. All was silent; a certain seriousness descended over the hall. Before us was a master at work, and we all sat at her mercy. The unaccompanied Bach, written over 300 years before the Prokofiev, seemed to speak a thousand words. This was Bach at its finest.

The remaining programme featured works written within a 58-year time span. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin which opened the concert was the perfect showcase for the COE. An ethereal sound, almost evocative of an impressionist painting, introduced us to a work originally written as a tribute to the fallen in World War 1. Despite the rather obvious lack of discipline in the first violins, the orchestra built to a wonderfully warm climax in the second movement. This was woodwind playing at its finest with tight ensemble and beautiful phrasing. Oboist Philippe Tondre was the star. His lightness and deft control were matched by the clarinet’s deliciously evocative decrescendos, and the flute’s quiet tranquillity.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Antwerp Symphony Orchestra | Jesse Willems

It was a further delight to watch Pappano at work in Dvořák's Serenade for Strings as he gently caressed the music, encouraging his strings to produce a rich and enticing sound with contrasts in colour and texture, yet with an overwhelming sense of fun. It was therefore a shame that Kodály’s Dances of Galánta left me slightly disappointed. Despite an expansive opening, the orchestra never truly found the rich symphonic sound required. Ensemble suffered in the closing Allegro vivace as the strings struggled to find the furious tempo. One was left wondering if using a baton might just have helped keep everything together after all.