There are few concert halls that have the acoustic excellence of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and a musical experience with its unparalleled orchestra always promises to be memorable. But this week’s combination of the pending holiday fervour, a gifted Russian pianist’s Gershwin and Mariss Jansons at the podium was one that brought in an expected sell-out crowd of devoted listeners. Six different composers were performed under the umbrella of the “rhapsody” genre, musical compositions irregular in form but often suggestive of improvisation, or the musical fantasia that traditionally impart a highly emotional or folkloristic content. Jansons, who celebrated his tenth year as the orchestra’s chief conductor this year, drove a repertoire pointedly designed to pull on the heart strings and set musical explosives by evoking the colourful experience of foreign lands.

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve | CAMI
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve | CAMI

With his long legacy in the Amsterdam hall, Jansons knows his orchestral musicians intimately. While himself showing a world of elegant gesture and studied command, he paced the players commendably. In the soft afternoon light that fell on stage from the wonderful half-moon clerestory windows above, I was struck by the breadth of Jansons upper back, muscled from such active conducting across its upper third like a Hollywood superhero. He ably evoked the widest possible variety of expression from the orchestra, through works that spanned almost a century. If there were to be a subtitle to this programme, it might run as “Muscle Men”, for so full-blooded was the repertoire, and so emphatic the performance.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Rhapsody (Allegro symphonique) was the composer’s first attempt to write a symphony, and marked the 10th anniversary of Czech independence. It started with a boisterous call to attention by the brasses, followed by resonant woodwinds and a rich fabric of romantic strings that Martinu himself thought of highly. He called this his “Military Symphony”, quite likely because it is hallmarked by a rich use of his horns. But for me, the solo woodwind at the end of the piece was the most astonishingly beautiful; it distinguished itself as the carrier of what sounded like an old hunting song.

Witold Lutosławski's familiar, Variations on a theme by Paganini is considered a true tour de force of modern virtuosity and was the first of two works performed at this concert by Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. Matsuev is a big man, whose self-assurance radiated even ahead of him as he descended the stairs to the orchestra stage. And Lutosławski's highly demanding piano score, while played with terrific stamina and at a speed hardly attributable to human hands, seemed almost come almost second nature to him. He “shook out” sections that, given his raised eyebrows and facial antics, felt like animated conversations with some challenging presence. Yet for me, the pianist’s truly muscular business, almost electrically charged jerks of the head and jabs at the piano keys were simply over the top.

Matsuev also played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue somehow, however, confusing Gershwin with Rachmaninov, and leaving much of the nuance of the American behind in the name of pure showmanship. He jumped up off the piano bench, stuck out his tongue, seemed on the warpath of his own making. Foremost, I would call him for failing to listen to the other players, an oversight that cost him accuracy in several of his attacks. Somehow, as my concert companion contended, “it was all about him”. Clearly Matsuev deserves every accolade for technical agility second to none, but I am convinced of this: that speed does not an artist make. To my mind, the real hero in this piece was the febrile clarinet, whose famous slide at the start of the piece and intermittent soli set the stage back to the 1920s, reflected the burgeoning urban landscape, and spoke of the American dream.

Perhaps the most interesting of the afternoon’s works was the rhapsody for orchestra España by Emmanuel Chabrier. The work paid tribute to the collection of popular airs the composer had enjoyed on a trip to Spain, and was supplemented by orchestral invention of his own. At the heart of literary and artistic circle in Paris pre-World War I, the composer was much admired in his day by Debussy, Strauss, Satie and Stravinsky, and cultivated friendships with painters Henri Fantin-Latour, Manet and Monet. Sadly, barring a few exceptions, Chabrier’s musical work is less remembered than are the paintings he bequeathed to various French collections. Yet España shows a sophisticated command of orchestral composition and expounds on what one critic has called “dazzling harmonic colours”. Further, it incorporates novel instrumental combinations − such as brass with percussion − that prefigure effects in Stravinsky, for example.

Next, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, the composer’s first major orchestral work, was also played with the ease of sound that marks the Concertgebouw’s finest tradition. Under Jansons’ baton, the first movement was magical, and ended on what might best be called a “starry night” in the form of tinkling points. The second movement Malagueña included clear references to castanets and the bravado of the bullfight − one could almost see the matador strutting out into the arena; the third, (Habanera) the dancer-like qualities of a folk dance. The orchestra generated an unparalleled sweeping sound in the last movement (Feria), where the score was punctuated by strong flute and oboe solos, and the faces of the players gave away their clear enthusiasm for the piece. At this level, such a piece must just be terrific fun to play.

Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C sharp minor completed the program with the sort of big booming sound that foreshadows the fare of the New Years’ concerts, in that sense, “jumping the gun” on the feel good factor we’ll be hearing everywhere next week. After the colour of the classics played before it − some lesser known but highly deserving − less might have indeed been more. After all, the boom-boom of the Nieuwjaarsdag will be here soon enough.