As part of the celebrations organized for its 125th anniversary, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra welcomed a precious guest – Janine Jansen, arguably one of the greatest of today's violinists – to interpret Sibelius’ Violin Concerto under the direction of Thomas Søndergård. – The concert was also featuring two short works by Mahler, plus Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; a pleasant evening, even if it could have been even more sparkling.

Janine Jansen © Harald Hoffmann | Decca
Janine Jansen
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca
The little jewel that is Mahler's Blumine was written around 1884, intended as the second movement of his First Symphony, but due to harsh criticism during the work’s first performances, the composer cut it before the score was even published. However, years later, Blumine earned a life of its own. The main theme is first played by the trumpet – elegant, lyrical, passionate but delicate – this touching melody is stated again by the strings and soon the whole orchestra contributes to the atmosphere. The tension builds up progressively during the middle section where the strings get more lyrical. Søndergård managed to deliver the essence of the music in an efficient way, with straight-forward gestures. However the sound did not grow as loud or as intense as we would have expected. In the first few minutes of the concert, the different instrumental parts did not yet form a perfectly homogenous sound; some small delays were noticeable, though the overall movement was completely satisfying on an expressive level.

Another piece by Mahler was played after Blumine, but this time it was a movement which was never withdrawn from the symphonic score. What the Wild Flowers Tell Me is the actual second movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The beginning shares the same type of lyricism as Blumine, but suddenly a rapid, rhythmic, mischievous melody emerges and inflames the entire orchestra. The RSNO performed again with restraint – their overall energy was good but here and there unequal dynamics were adopted by the sections. The issue at stake was clearly not the quality of the orchestra, nor the interpretative choices made by the conductor, but rather the difficulty to instantly create a specific musical atmosphere. It was indeed quite frustrating to be offered only this one movement of Mahler’s Third: even if it may be isolated from the rest of the score, it sounds a bit uncanny without what comes before and after, orphan-like in a way… especially given the magnificence of the Third global architecture with its six movements.

There was no room for disappointment as Janine Jansen entered the stage to play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Her appearance was preceded by a short talk by Søndergård in which he referred to the violinist as “a great actress”; and when she played, she proved to be exactly that. She was completely devoted to the music, making it hers and expressing all its variations and its subtleties. Not only did she perfectly master the concerto's technical challenges, but she kept building specific types of sound, changing the colours, depending on the various, constantly evolving atmospheres in the score. Thus the texture of her violin could be passionate and visceral but, moments later, measured and ethereal. The expression she chose to develop was always incredibly honest and mature. Except from a few passages when the orchestra was slightly too loud (in the second movement), her interpretation was mesmerising, triggering goosebumps.  

After the interval, the orchestra played Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 in A major. Søndergård was obviously committed to giving life to this symphony, and he managed to create an energetic dynamic and to implement well-balanced dynamic markings, but coming after the Sibelius, the first movement sounded extremely classical – a problem when concert programmes are not presented in chronological order. Fortunately, the second and third movements proved stronger; the tempi chosen seemed fast at first but were perfectly relevant, inducing beautiful phrasing and a catchy, exciting progression. The Allegro finale was even more frantic: the off-the-beat accents and rapid changes in tension nurtured the overwhelming enthusiasm spreading from this wild, original, thrilling dance movement. All's well that ends well!