“Music critics,” as André Previn once wryly said “will forgive a composer for many things. They’ll even forgive you for being an ax murderer, but they will not forgive you for writing film music.” Still less, he might have added, for the unforgivable crime of being successful at it. Thus did Erich Wolfgang Korngold find himself relegated to subaltern status by his compositions for Hollywood movies in the Golden Age of the 1930s. With characteristic chutzpah, he trumped detractors by using his very film scores as the prime source material for his Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35. And however the purists might have scoffed at music that was originally written with heart-throb Errol Flynn in mind and all his melodramatic adventures, the concerto was a success as a straight concerto.

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

Tonight, Leonidas Kavakos returned to DC as part of the Washington Performing Arts’ series, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, to bring Korngold to life again in his adopted land. With something of the nerdily academic about his profile as performer, it was perhaps not the most obvious choices for him. Kavakos does not project overt aplomb, and was less than a comfortable fit with the lush flamboyance and heart-on-sleeve romanticism of the score. His virtuosity was nonetheless undoubted, his powers over the instrument formidable. Still, he failed to soar convincingly above the orchestra in the first movement – and the BRSO, a particularly demonstrative bunch, were milking the work of all its emotional power.

The second movement, Romance, based on the Oscar-winning score for Anthony Adverse, boasts much old-fashioned Hollywood pathos. At its best, this was achieved, although I felt again that Kavakos missed some opportunities to evoke the nuances of wistfulness. Perhaps the most facetious of comments for the fiendishly fast Rondo is to say that the soloist should enjoy it, but it is an important point. Kavakos did get into it – at one point, he smiled over at the first violins and that was either a cause or a sign of relaxation. A sense of shared spirit made for a more spirited finale than anything heard previously. A welcome touch of Errol the swashbuckler at the last.

Whether Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor is, as has been argued, one of the ‘seven wonders of the symphonic world’ will depend entirely on the viewpoint of the individual, but in any event, it is a massive musical undertaking to bind its varied parts into a coherent whole over a playing time of about 70 minutes. The Bavarian RSO, under the baton of the venerable Mariss Jansons showed itself well up to the arduous task. What strikes one most powerfully about this orchestra is its expressiveness, as individuals and as a collectivity. All orchestras have to find a delicate balance between the two, and here there was a sense of balance achieved, of a strong unity without a sacrifice of the individual’s energy and personal, even passionate commitment. Quite how this was achieved I know not, but the effect was patent, and audible, particularly I felt in the strings. Jansons’ conducting style, traditional and polished, with impeccable musical manners, was a good fit. He wields his baton like a turn-of-the-century Viennese dance master, not a sergeant major, just the thing for Mahler.

The symphony began powerfully, ushering in that curiously hybrid funeral march which has yet in it something of the waltz, for all its stridently martial aspects. Pace is quite crucial to get right at the very start of the second movement, indexed as ‘Stormily, with the Greatest Vehemence’, and the pace here was magnificent. Neither scurried nor lugubrious, it had all the flow and intensity needed, but allowed for much wallowing in the largeness of sound. The third movement Scherzo is nothing if not about the dance in its favoured Austrian forms, both aristocratic (the waltz) and peasant (the Ländler): the fragmentary treatment of both was effectively conveyed.

Before Mahler’s star rose again in the 1960s, the chances were that the fourth movement Adagietto was one of the only Mahler works the general concert-goer might have heard. It is the apex of romanticism, and thus it is not in the least surprising indeed that it became the theme music for Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice. I wasn’t timing it, but it seemed the BRSO gave it its full longueur, which I rather like. The finale was of a piece with the interpretation as a whole, warm, engaged and filling the whole hall with sound. It is fashionable these days to speak of multiple intelligences, and, if one may speak so, the BRSO came across as having a high degree of emotional intelligence, ideal for communicating a work of such emotional power and conviction.