If the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is the Porsche of orchestras, then Mariss Jansons is something like the Michael Schumacher of conductors, guiding this most-celebrated of German radio orchestras through some of the most precipitous and heart-stopping shifts in speed I have witnessed. Not that these are always dramatic: often they are incredibly slight accelerations or decelerations at the end of a section, or in a sudden change of mood, but the impression made by such a huge ensemble making such sharp and effortless turns at the slightest pressure of the baton leaves one breathless.

Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Musikfest Berlin 2013 © Peter Meisel
Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Musikfest Berlin 2013
© Peter Meisel

And this orchestra simply speaks beautifully. Admire, if you will, the discipline in listening one needs to pull off some of the very fast ensemble work in Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, duos and trios between sections powering forward at high velocities. The work, written in what we now know to be Lutosławski’s early period, has a voracious energy and a courageous belief in its own vitality. The composer doesn’t always succumb to the pressure of changing his textures every few bars, but will make use of dramatic grooves if they suit his purpose. In this the work is very different, much younger, than the much more self-conscious and restrained work in the same genre by Béla Bartók, to whom Lutoslawski’s concerto is dedicated in memory.

Bartók’s concerto, one of his most famous works, is always a pleasure to hear, and even more so on a program that pairs this well-known work with a lesser-heard one that has clearly so absorbed the older composer’s influence and style. One of his last works, the concerto follows an arch form that finds its keystone in a central “Elegia”, a nocturnal movement that contributes to Bartók’s other explorations in that mood. I rather wish that Jansons did not so abruptly and unceremoniously clear the atmosphere between movements, especially after this one, but instead did something to sustain the mood from movement to movement, as Daniele Gatti did a few nights before. (Perhaps this was a pre-emptive measure to protect the piece from the sound of coughing, which, at the Philharmonie, is cacophonous.)

The second and fourth movements, more playful, feature sudden shifts in character that are no challenge for this orchestra and this conductor, who have found a way to have power without a trace of bulkiness. The brass and percussion, which are prominent in this work, somehow never wash out the strings even though they don’t seem to be holding back. The orchestra is simply a superbly calibrated machine: tight, flexible, at ease in its strengths.