“I have the brain of a Latvian and the heart of a Russian.” Born in Riga, Mariss Jansons has spent much of his life in St Petersburg, initially as Evgeny Mravinsky’s assistant at the (then) Leningrad Philharmonic from 1971. He is now based in the city, where his granddaughter is a stage manager at the Mariinsky Theatre. Russian repertoire is second nature to Jansons and this programme at the Barbican with his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was easily the finest music-making I’ve heard all year.

Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian RSO © Brescia & Amisano
Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian RSO
© Brescia & Amisano

Only 25 years spanned the three works in this programme: two first symphonies by Prokofiev and Shostakovich – witty and ebullient – and Rachmaninov's final work, his Symphonic Dances. Prokofiev was 25 when he composed his First Symphony. 1917 was a momentous year for Russia. The February revolution had deposed the Tsar and the October one was to bring the Bolsheviks to power. In between, Prokofiev – as if blissfully ignorant – composed much of his sunny First Symphony. Nikolai Tcherepnin, Prokofiev’s teacher, had lectured his students on how to conduct Haydn. Prokofiev’s response was to write a quirky work which caricatures rococo style and follows classical form, though he replaced the traditional Minuet with a 4/4 Gavotte (which he later deployed to his ballet Romeo and Juliet). Jansons, conducting with broad sweeps of his baton, set moderate tempi which allowed a wealth of detail to pour from the score. Lower strings underlined the brusque humour, while woodwinds clucked and chuckled, the flute, for once, not forced to gabble in the helter-skelter finale.

Where Prokofiev’s First doesn’t really give a hint of what was to follow, Shostakovich’s fingerprints are all over his First Symphony, composed at the age of 19 as a graduation exercise for Maximilian Steinberg’s composition class. It teems with all the circus capers, menace, lamentation and bombastic celebration you’d expect from later Shostakovich, even if the humour isn’t as acidic as it would become. Stravinsky is referenced – you can almost picture Nijinsky’s Petrushka being poked in the ribs by the opening trumpet solo.

The Bavarian RSO truly has it all: burnished strings, muscular brass, silky woodwinds, all hanging on Jansons’ every baton flick. Looking frail, he nevertheless conducts with vigour. Jansons is a master technician, cueing every entry, but also balancing each of the sections perfectly. Fiery double basses scrabbled at the start of the second movement Allegro, a cheeky clarinet darted and dodged, the piano provided its jocular commentary, like those piano scores for silent films that Shostakovich would perform in cinemas. The signposts to later symphonies are there, from the hollow triumph of military pomp (the Fifth) to quoting Wagner (the Fifteenth). It deserves far more than the occasional outing, especially when performed with such utter conviction.

Can there ever have been a more appropriate final opus than Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances? It is a wonderful summation of his compositional career and, like Shostakovich’s Fifteenth, is full of enigmatic self-quotation. The motto theme from the First Symphony, disastrously received after its shambolic première, is quoted towards the end of the first dance. Rachmaninov's favourite Dies irae chant appears – no surprise – battling in the final section of the third dance with what is near enough an orchestration of the ninth movement of his choral masterpiece, the All-Night Vigil (or Vespers), underlined by Rachmaninov penning the word ‘Alliluya’ in his score.   

In the first dance, the saxophone solo was pure Russian Orthodox, smoky tone wreathing the entire woodwind section. The second dance, a teasing waltz choreographed by Jansons with generous rubatos, showed off the nutty sweetness of the Bavarian strings: halting pizzicatos, mellow violas and the most refulgent harmonies from the cellos. The final dance ended in truly demonic style, a ferocious tam-tam strike sounding a death knell, allowed to resonate long after the orchestra’s final stabbing note.

More dancing from the two encores: dainty Schubert – showcasing those strings again – was followed by an explosive Slavonic Dance.