About a month ago, conductor Mariss Jansons announced that he would resign as Chief Conductor of the storied Royal Concertgebouw, the Amsterdam orchestra that many consider to be among the world’s best. Jansons has had significant health problems in recent years, and many younger conductors would struggle to lead two separate orchestras at the same time. But was I alone in wondering why he chose to leave the Concertgebouw and dedicate his time to Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra? This Carnegie Hall concert, the first of a three-day residency from the BRSO that rounds out the season, showed exactly why.

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

To say that this is an outstanding orchestra would be banal. No band becomes the chosen vehicle of the likes of Rafael Kubelík and Sir Colin Davis in times past without being special in some way. But in this largely routine programme Jansons and his orchestra showed a very rare bond, the kind in which each gives trust and freedom to the other, and each responds to risk and reward with infectious smiles and playing of unusual, exhilarating unity of purpose.

I did say largely routine. I never would have thought that it would take Jansons, an infamously conservative programmer, to give the Carnegie première of John Adams’s 1996 piece Slonimsky’s Earbox. This turning point in Adams’s compositional style is a big, brash tone poem, one that makes minimalist techniques the setting for Stravinskyesque slashes, deliciously fruity harmonies, and an insatiable excitability. Its title memorialises Nicolas Slonimsky, an author, conductor, and lexicographer who led an extraordinary life in music and in print. My copy of his hilarious Lexicon of Musical Invective doesn’t contain an entry for Adams – although a new edition deservedly would – but something of Slonimsky’s splice-and-arrange, referential mind makes it into the Earbox. I can’t imagine it being better played.

Strauss is served especially well in the Lexicon, less for Don Juan than for the abuse hurled by critics of old at Till Eulenspiegel and Also sprach Zarathustra. Eduard Hanslick makes it in, predictably, for his spluttering denunciation of Don Juan as the “non plus ultra of a false unrestrained direction,” adored by “ladies and little Wagnerites” but otherwise “simply repellent”. How times change. We probably hear Don Juan too much at the expense of other Strauss – let alone anything else – but as long as it’s performed as well as this, I don’t mind. The BRSO is not the most precise of orchestras, nor the most plush, but the rougher edges work well in Strauss. The longest of long bowing helps, as does a wind section able to alter its tone at will, and a universal energy. Couple that with Jansons’s immaculate pacing, especially at this music’s most swooning moments, and his ability to draw characterful phrasing (a swagger here, a faux gentleness there), and you get some very satisfying Strauss.

If Don Juan was extremely good, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was more extreme. The Symphonie is an inventive, ambitious, and weird piece – the word “lunatic” pops up in Slonimsky more than once. And here Jansons played up all its strangeness, its formal innovations, its ghastly colourations, and its grotesque undertones. Fiercely dramatic throughout, the hall was also used well, with the third movement’s offstage oboe placed somewhere high in the auditorium, and its timpani thundering away behind the stage. Playing with delicacy and sway in the waltz of “Un bal”, the strings were never less than lucid. The “Marche au supplice” was murderous, the pomp of the brass fanfares empty but vicious all the same, then transformed in the “Songe d’un nuit de sabbat” into a pleading, hymning hope. Staid repertoire this might be, but when you have an orchestra and conductor playing and thinking with ardour like this, that is quickly forgotten.