When the Berlin Philharmonic is away on tour, the Concertgebouw visits. Although I’ve yet to hear the former orchestra in the festival, by all accounts it is a fair exchange. The upper strings do not feature in the opening of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, which allowed us to hear the Concertgebouw’s wind section in all its naked glory. And glorious they were, jaw-droppingly good for the entire concert. By contrast, I had slight doubts about the forte violin tone in Variation 6 – it felt a little thin and astringent. This might have been partly to do with where I was seated, further away than for the Staatskapelle concerts, and just to the left of a central partition. However, it remained an issue for most of the evening. Jansons sculpted the sounds with classical precision, giving us punchy off-beat accents in the scherzo-like Variation 5, and real grazioso lilt in Variation 7. The ground-bass in the finale, a warm-up for the Passacaglia in Brahms’s Symphony no. 4 in E minor, was carefully brought out, and the exuberant return of the theme bedecked with triangle caught the jubilant atmosphere also found in the composer’s Academic Festival Overture.

Leonidas Kavakos and Mariss Jansons © Kai Bienert
Leonidas Kavakos and Mariss Jansons
© Kai Bienert

Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel (Play of light, incorporating an untranslatable allusion ‘child’s play’) is written for a reduced complement of strings, plus pairs of flutes, oboes and horns. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the dedicatee who premiered the work in 2010, has also recorded it. In her version, elements of the romantic school of violin playing were coated in a diaphanous, understated orchestral texture. For me, Leonidas Kavakos missed this warmer element, deliberately contenting himself with painting in different shades of grey for much of the piece. At times he didn’t use vibrato, which made him sound less subjectively invested than might have actually been the case, although his tone was still beautiful. It was a piece where quiet sections predominated, although maybe was most successful in the livelier parts with their strong rhythmic profile (in such moments, I’d have welcomed a more gutsy approach from the soloist). There were some exquisite orchestral textures: a transparent chord at about 5-6 minutes was to die for, and the flutter-tongued winds were impressive. It was listened to with exemplary attention, and the composer joined the musicians for a warm ovation. The encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita for solo violin in E major, was performed with all the character which I missed in the 'Summer Piece': Kavakos even embroidered the theme imaginatively on its later returns.

The entire second half was given over to the music of Richard Strauss, and here the orchestra really came into its own. Jansons was deliberate rather than exuberant in both tone poems (Tod und Verklärung took a stately 27 minutes or so by my reckoning), but the playing was so fine that one found oneself rejoicing at new details rather than bemoaning a lack of impetus. In the opening of Death and Transfiguration, as it is known in English, the winds slightly dominated the string sound. Jansons pushed the tempo quite a bit at the ‘reminiscences’ section (again, fine oboe and flute solos), and when the ‘fever’ struck, it was initially restrained but caught fire eventually. The most successful section was the ‘memories of love affairs’, where the strings finally achieved parity with their wind counterparts, and delivered the echt-Straussian sweep to perfection. The brass sounded rich during the premonitions of the Ideal theme, and while the big build-up to the ‘Transfiguration’ might have been a little more expressive, the final section proper was nicely nuanced, with a lovely afterglow after the last arrival on the tonic chord.

Although The merry pranks of Till Eulenspiegel (to give its full name) is the very next in the series of tone poems after Tod und Verklärung, it shows significant developments in Strauss’ orchestral techniques: not only is a larger body of instruments used, but the individualisation of tone colours is more pronounced, as witness the large number of solos. The famous horn theme at the beginning was nailed (one tiny error when the passage returned later), and the E flat clarinet, which more regularly represents the title character, was absolutely outstanding, especially in the ‘trial’. The solo violin was also excellent, and the link into the next section after his lengthy downward scale was timed to perfection by the conductor. After the Variations set heard earlier, the parody of Brahms’ idiom in the ‘priests’ second theme was particularly obvious. This wasn’t the most rumbunctious Till ever, but barring the brass dominance in the ‘trial’, it was exemplary in its clarity: memorable moments include the ‘philistines’ and the ‘death’ pizzicati, drawing this fine concert to a close.