Strauss’ Don Juan has a long tradition as one of the Vienna Philharmonic’s more dazzling curtain-openers but a recent tendency, even with Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted this work with the orchestra last autumn, has been for more subdued accounts which downplay the brilliance and virtuosity of the orchestral writing. At the Salzburg Festival on Saturday a thrilling opening flourish by the first violins put paid to that straight off, sparking a fire underneath the introduction which in turn came off with such infectious spontaneity it was as if hearing this warhorse for the first time all over again.

Mariss Jansons conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Silvia Lelli
Mariss Jansons conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Silvia Lelli

As those familiar with his work have long appreciated, such is the heady experience of seeing an on-form Mariss Jansons in pursuit of unclaimed interpretive territory. But while Jansons denied the playing none of the colouration which once led the Viennese critic and exasperated opponent of programme music Eduard Hanslick to charge Strauss with blending ‘all the elements of musical-sensual stimulation to produce a stupefying pleasure gas’, this Don Juan seemed to come to more than the sum of its flashy and tender parts. Episodes were seamlessly knitted together with none of the dreaded lurching which can afflict this piece and Ein Heldenleben; overall form was too grounded in the programmatic side to sound like an imposed sonata movement, though deft handling of the various motifs and themes was not without its structural logic; and the content of the programmatic element allowed for both a human portrait and the more philosophical treatment present in the Byronic reflections of the Nikolaus Lenau poem from which Strauss took his inspiration. The Philhamonic’s playing was a textbook display of the staggering perfection they are capable of when they put their minds to it, with lushly surging strings in their B major cantilena, exquisite filigree in the woodwind solos, and a quite breathtaking unison horn entry towards the end.

The standard of playing was maintained in slightly more muted fashion for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, with the gentle lapping of the string cushion in the third song, ‘Im Treibhaus’, acquiring a devastating poignancy. But these songs can ultimately only be carried by the soprano and in this respect Nina Stemme, showing her warm middle and duskiness of tone lower down, never sounded fully warmed up and put in a disappointing performance. Aside from the near-spotless technical control of some gracefully shaped phrases close to the top of her voice, her flat delivery, impassive to the point of emotionally inhibited, was too expressively blank for this material. I also write here with some incredulity that the leading Brünnhilde of her generation was simply not audible in more than a few places, and that over some exceptionally sensitive accompanying from the Philharmonic. When I heard Stemme sing these songs in a rather less aloof manner earlier this year, there was much more of her customary vocal heft.

Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 received a good performance, rather than the outstanding one stoked by the expectations from the first half; gone was the vigour and stylistic homogeneity of the Strauss, with only the first violins left in a now overly conspicuous bullish mood. Jansons’ conducting too faltered: the ominous struggle of the introduction was rather undermined by insensitive thumping from the timpanist, the first in a series of balance issues, while disparities in articulation between the strings and winds led to too much contrast of attack for musical lines to emerge coherently underlined. The three-note stabbing motif introduced by the violas was feeble, and in strange contrast to the deliberate first subject, the 6/8 woodwind solos of the second subject area were, quite at odds with their character, rushed along at one in a bar with what sounded like great reluctance from the musicians concerned. Towards the end, a majestically spacious glimpse of the first and second subject material in C major carried by solo horn and clarinet set up a satisfying if somewhat lopsided conclusion.

A similar note of gravitas came at the end of the Andante, though despite improved ensemble and more settled tempi, the bulk of the movement saw much routine Brahms playing, the problem with an orchestra of the Philharmonic’s calibre being that the effect of switching to autopilot is noticeably deadening. Things picked up in the third movement, if a little irregularly: clarinettist Daniel Ottensamer’s melodiously flowing strains in material thematic and decorative was utterly captivating, but flute and oboe contributions did not gel nearly so elegantly with the strings. The finale saw a return to the unstable tempi of the first movement and even greater discrepancies in the playing, particularly in the unfolding of the big C major theme, throughout which firsts, violas and cellos sounded as if they were performing in three different Brahms symphonies. The Alpine horn call was astringent but redeemed somewhat by the nobly sonorous trombone chorale, and the very end brought another abrupt gear-change as Jansons decided to go out blazing. On the whole this was not badly played Brahms, and inconsistent is probably the word for the conducting rather than misconceived – but performances such as the Don Juan don’t come along every day for any orchestra and as far as concerts of two halves go there might even be something to be said for such extreme unevenness.