It’s no secret that Mariss Jansons has health problems. Twenty years ago he nearly died conducting La bohème in Oslo. He had to step down from Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra five years ago after health worries, but he continues to conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. After a three-month enforced spell of rest over the summer, when he had to miss Salzburg and the inaugural Riga-Jumala Festival in his native Latvia, the 76-year-old is touring again with the orchestra. He stepped on to the stage at Vienna’s Musikverein last night looking bowed and gaunt, but there was nothing remotely frail about the music. Plainly, he’s lost nothing of his ability to inspire truly outstanding playing.

Mariss Jansonsc conducts the Bavarian RSO in rehearsals © Astrid Ackmann
Mariss Jansonsc conducts the Bavarian RSO in rehearsals
© Astrid Ackmann

An evening that had begun with Richard Strauss and Mozart closed with a revelatory, shattering reading of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. From the moment Jansons caressed the opening, questing phrase of the first movement into existence we knew we were hearing something profound. Everything was so carefully measured, each phrase so lovingly shaped. And the sheer physicality of the playing made every gesture so vivid and colourful than other readings seemed pallid in comparison.

The rich sonority among the strings in the second movement was as gilded as the ornate splendour of the Musikverein itself, all burnished gold and warm terracotta. After a remarkably forthright Scherzo we plunged into the gloriously broad brass and woodwind Passacaglia at the opening of the finale, the strings elbowing them aside with their insistent, troubled, densely constructed variations. The passionate turbulence at this point in the symphony rarely reaches the glorious heights that Jansons managed to conjure from his thoroughly committed players. A beautifully played flute solo from Philippe Boucly brought a moment of calm before declamatory strings cut through like a sharpened steel blade and brought us to the work’s desolate E minor conclusion. Jansons almost danced with delight as he took his calls amid a rapturous reception, which he rewarded with a wonderfully suave Brahms Hungarian Dance no. 1 as a delicious encore.

Rudolf Buchbinder rehearses with the Bavarian RSO © Astrid Ackmann
Rudolf Buchbinder rehearses with the Bavarian RSO
© Astrid Ackmann

He had opened the evening with a classy performance of Richard Strauss’ Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, which featured some fine solo work, particularly in the tender second interlude, from principal clarinettist Stefan Schilling and leader Radoslaw Szulc. There was more outstanding solo work in the third, with the front desks of the strings in ravishing form, before blazing horns brought the whole thing to a romping close.

Can there be pianists more generous than Rudolf Buchbinder? His reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major was marked by his smiling, good-natured relationship with the orchestra. He seemed to be revelling in a thoroughly collegiate approach, treating the piece more like chamber music than an opportunity to display his abundant talent. Even amid the aching tenderness of the second movement he found time to seek out and make eye contact with the principal bassoon as they played gentle, answering phrases back and forth. The breakneck speed of the finale may have come at the expense of some keyboard articulation but this performance will live long in the memory for its warm-hearted congeniality between soloist, orchestra and conductor.

Clearly, the spirited Jansons is determined to carry on. Tonight he conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich...


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