Third time’s a charm? Or is three a crowd? It isn’t often that an orchestra takes up an entire weekend at Carnegie Hall, albeit with an exception duly made for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But that’s precisely how the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons closed out the season on 57th Street. On Friday night there was an exhilarating programme of Adams, Strauss, and Berlioz. Saturday had Beethoven with Mitsuko Uchida, plus Shostakovich. And Sunday afternoon promised the most exciting programme of the three. So, could this be too much of a good thing?

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

With this partnership, not a chance. Jansons’ programming remained heterogeneous and disparate for this final concert, and if it nodded to “contemporary” composition it did so on the safe ground of Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Berg’s Violin Concerto. Atmosphères is heard so frequently now that it’s as if its Hungarian composer wrote little else, a fear that Jansons aptly dispatched in his encore, the fizzy finale from the Concert Românesc. Still, this was a very fine performance, more mysterious than piercing, and certainly ominous. Some conductors have recently been using this piece to preface others without a break, most memorably Simon Rattle with the Lohengrin prelude and Vladimir Jurowski with the Rite of Spring. Even with a pause (which forced this programme into the overture-concerto-symphony mould), these Atmosphères nicely looked forward to the Berg in their perilous climbs and quick drops, as well as the especially detailed playing Jansons drew from his orchestra. Rarely have I heard the brushed piano strings that conclude the piece sound quite so menacing.

Berg’s Violin Concerto has unfortunately acquired a reputation as the “ideal atonal piece for those who dislike atonal music”, as Jack Sullivan’s programme note put it. Although this just perpetuates lazy stereotypes about the “difficult” and “unemotional” music of the Second Viennese School and what came after it, it’s understandable. The work has an accessible back-story – who cannot empathise with grief? – and it often receives highly romanticised performances, like this one. In the wrong hands this approach can debase a fiercely modernist work, however lyrical, into something saccharine or sleepy.

Gentle this may have been at times, tender even, but so communicative were Gil Shaham, Jansons and the orchestra, that one was constantly aware of a emotional and musical working-out carrying on in front of one’s eyes and in one’s ears. Shaham and Jansons may have made this sound much closer to Mahler than Webern, but crucially that allowed even more room to point out structure, for the locally based violinist to pick up snippets of lines, tone rows, and waltzes that the orchestra had left behind, and pass them on, transformed. As part of a project to record numerous concertos from the 1930s, Shaham has been playing this concerto fairly frequently, something that was easy to hear in the freedom of his playing and his innate sense of searching. The orchestra responded with admirably clear, committed playing, and Jansons judged the pacing well.

Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major was judiciously done too. The BRSO has a sound built for Brahms, one that seems to emerge from the floor beneath the players rather than from their instruments, earthily but flexibly, weightily but never gloopily. What struck me here was how well they listen to one another, taking the freedom given by Jansons to develop themes among themselves, to take chances that draw a smile from the podium. Take the balancing and sensitivity of the three brass chords that announce the recapitulation of the first movement (questioning, hopeful, and, alas, forlorn), or the way that charming wind phrases were lobbed around the sections in the scherzo-that-isn’t. Even the finale busied itself within the longest of long lines, while the slow movement was lyrical, true, but constantly shifting. 

Yet freedom came within a welcomely sane and natural reading from Jansons, if one without the last dash of inspiration that would have turned a tremendous performance into a genuinely great one. None of Brahms' symphonies are easy to bring off, but this one poses particular challenges, its classicism masking tricky choices and a ferocity of development. Jansons proved excitable at times, especially in the latter movements, but always musically so, elaborating a transformation or pushing a point home. Vitally, his talent for balances allowed detail to come through only at the service of musical argument. He never tried to hide Brahms’ dark side, but he did take a rather ambivalent view of it. If anything triumphed at all in the raucous coda, it wasn’t easily described in the simple language of happy or sad. And there’s nothing more authentically Brahmsian than that.