Just a day after he was bestowed with an honorary membership – and a couple of weeks after his 75th birthday – Mariss Jansons was at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker again. The programme, in two different ways, reflected some of his ethos as a conductor: as a selfless collaborator on the one hand, and as a maestro whose main aim is always to serve the composer on the other.

Mariss Jansons © Stephan Rabold
Mariss Jansons
© Stephan Rabold

In the first capacity, he ceded the limelight in to the pianist Daniil Trifonov. The brilliant young Russian, soloist in first half’s Schumann concerto, barely seemed to acknowledge the conductor as he strode on the stage with him, briskly shook the hands of the front desk of first violins and plonked himself at the piano, staring straight ahead. A quick look at Jansons, though, and they were off, the opening gesture delivered arrestingly and urgently. In his next solo, the pianist lingered, emphasising the top line in Schumann’s writing with an insistence that bordered on the aggressive.

And the first couple of minutes set the tone for a performance which often pushed the work to its extremes – holding back the tempo here, pushing forward impetuously there; flame allowed to recede into a glow here, hurriedly reignited there. Trifonov proved an outstanding accompanist when the piano receded into that role – where the orchestra’s woodwinds, in particular, excelled themselves – and always emerged thrillingly back into the limelight. He brought undeniable tenderness to the central Intermezzo, and his playing in the finale, taken faster than I think I’ve ever heard it, was electric.

The question, however, was whether the virtuoso tools he was employing here were the right ones in a work that arguably requires something a little more considered. Trifonov's way with Schumann’s melodic lines often felt overdetermined, his rubato exaggerated, and the big climax of the first movement’s cadenza ended up too rushed and splashy. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff, but I came away with a sense of a remarkable artist, possessed of an ever-questing musical imagination, needing to relax and settle into this music.  

Daniil Trifonov and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Daniil Trifonov and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The second half, by contrast, offered something a great deal more measured. Jansons is one of a clutch of conductors who seem increasingly to be favouring Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. A wonderful work that has long had something of an ugly duckling status, it stands as a relatively modest edifice beside its neighbours in the Brucknerian canon. One writer a while back even argued once that its neglect was down to the trickiness of the rhythm that acts like the glue of the taut first movement.

Certainly that’s not the sort of thing to bother these musicians, and that opening Maestoso was thrilling for its rhythmic precision and forcefulness, not least as timpanist Wieland Welzel powered us through its coda – he got his own well deserved bow at the end for his efforts. In general the performance had all the characteristics familiar from Jansons’ Bruckner, with a premium placed on good musical sense and momentum at the expense, perhaps, of any attempt to dig deep into the work’s spiritual foundations. With tempos on the slightly swift side there was not much time for Brucknerian navel gazing, but each movement was allowed to make its point clearly and unfussilly, held together with masterly control.

The spiritual aspect came, instead, from the quality of the playing of the orchestra. David Cooper led the heavenly horns, his own solos soaring aloft serenely, and the trumpets cut through the texture excitingly. The clarinet and oboe solos added to a beautifully shaped account of the glorious Adagio, while the thrilling tutti gallop of the Scherzo was well contrasted with the weirdness of the Trio section – a startled party of hunting horns popping up among craggy pizzicato strings. The finale, undoubtedly one of Bruckner’s most satisfying, crowned the memorable performance in an irresistible blaze of optimism. 

****1