“A conductor without an orchestra would be nothing” and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks proved to be a congenial partner for its chief conductor Mariss Jansons who praised the musicians as his “colleagues” when accepting the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society after a superb concert at the Barbican. Jansons, who has been chief conductor of the Bavarian orchestra since 2003, was awarded the Society’s most prestigious honour for his “close relationship with all his musicians [...] Rehearsals are intensely focused and he expects them always to work at the highest level. He is rewarded by total respect and superlative playing”. Dame Mitsuko Uchida thanked her “friend” for his dedication to the music and his ability to show the “total honesty to the score”.

Mariss Jansons receiving the RPS Gold Medal from Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Mark Allan | Barbican
Mariss Jansons receiving the RPS Gold Medal from Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Jansons had every reason to be proud of his world class orchestra on an evening which started with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Yefim Bronfman’s delicately played opening was answered by a sophisticated layer of sound from the orchestra: tender strings, silky woodwinds and decisive double basses. Bronfman almost casually decorated the melody at a breakneck pace while he kept not only Jansons, but the entire orchestra in sight. Intimidating orchestral rigour and the heartbreaking gentleness of Bronfman’s playing caught your breath in the Adagio, while the concluding Rondo is one of Beethoven’s most inventive movements. High spirits strings alternate with inward piano passages before the concerto culminates in a triumphal finale.

Yefim Bronfman performs at the Barbican © Mark Allan | Barbican
Yefim Bronfman performs at the Barbican
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Composed in 1944 and often labelled as the composer’s “war symphony”, Prokofiev himself described his Fifth Symphony as “a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit”. That grandeur is most apparent in the concluding apotheosis of the epic first movement. Jansons drew long gestures and phrases, held the tension throughout the Adagio, balancing each of the sections and never letting the dynamic overwhelm. Lush strings and forcefully marching brass and percussion that put your teeth on edge were followed by an almost sarcastic scherzo. In this leftover music from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, the Bavarian RSO showed true mastery. The melody danced around the woodwind principals, joined by a shrill E flat clarinet and a superb trumpet (later trombone) staccato that paved the way for a most natural-seeming accelerando and an abrupt end.

Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian RSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian RSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Jansons cued every entry – as if he would tap the tambourine himself – and from time to time put the baton into his left hand to tease out distinguished colours from the orchestra. There is a sense of grief, but also hope in the Adagio which is crushed by the returning marching horns and percussion. The concluding movement seems to promise a bright future, but Prokofiev soon changes the mood. The brass- and percussion-laden finale was transparently conducted by Jansons, whose baton strokes went like whiplashes through the orchestra, fuelled by cutting double basses, before the symphony comes to an abrupt end.

The encores – the Panorama from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and The Death by Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet – underlined the the close relationship and deep connection between Jansons and his “colleagues” of the Bavarian RSO, who followed the conductor’s every movement. It was one of conductor’s “revelatory performances” that proved that Mariss Jansons is indeed “one of the greatest musicians of our day”.