Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****

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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 24th November 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4
  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 5

Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony. These are the orchestras usually held up as the world’s best. The smart money though also rates the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I know that Mr Jansons has a way with Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich through recordings, but this was the first time I had ever seen him, or his principal orchestra, perform. That just shows what a berk I am, (I have discounted previous visits thanks to repertoire), though I suppose you could say this means I have much to look forward to. Anyway I was quite excited.

The thing is I still don’t know if I really like Prokofiev’s music. Sometimes I am really swept along by the wealth of ideas and colours. Sometimes I am baffled. A work in progress if you will. With the Beethoven however there was enough from the programme to commit. I am so glad I did. I don’t think I have ever heard a conductor who exerts so much control over the dynamics of an orchestra. Mr Jansons seems to have worked out every single detail and every one of the orchestra members knew what to do and when to do it. The lushiest of lush strings, the silkiest of silky woodwind, ┬áthe punchiest of punch brass and the most precise of precision percussion.

A bit too perfect. Maybe. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of performance every day of the week but it worked for me in the Prokofiev. This was SP’s return to the symphonic form after a 15 year hiatus, and the first after his return to the Soviet Union. You could read it like a “celebration” of the Red Army’s victories over the German army, (it premiered in 1944), but it would seem to make as much sense as reading Shostakovich’s symphonies in the same way. It seems to me that it defies any programmatic intent. The first movement opens with a woodwind theme that gets bashed up by brass and percussion, followed by some string development and then a dissonant halt before the B flat major resolution. If this is an epic tale of overcoming the enemy it is a funny way of showing it. The scherzo which follows, with a tune SP nicked from his own Romeo and Juliet, (and which is the theme tune for a telly programme I can’t identify which irks me immensely), is one of those amazing ideas which SP seems to conjure up at will and which defines the word sardonic. Here though he plays with it, rather than discarding it too early and moving on, which is what normally annoys me. It ends with a trademark dissonance. The strings of the BRSO were bonkers fast by the end but still perfectly regimented. The Adagio kicks off with a proper stringy heart tugger then a funeral march before the finale opens with a gallop that gets pulled apart by percussion until a final, odd maybe-heroic conclusion.

It always seems to me that SP never seemed entirely comfortable with what he created and felt compelled to shake ideas back up as soon as they were realised. This is what makes it a bit too bitty for me. Yet in this performance I could hear a line through the movements and all that ADHD nervous intensity was calmed and channelled.

Same in the Beethoven, but because I know and get this, all was pleasure. Yefim Bronfman has a delicate touch for a big fella (like me), and pulled it out for the showy bits, but this was all about the orchestra which was so on the ball in this that it felt like it only lasted 5 minutes. I guess all that sitting around waiting for the soloist in the opening movement after his first tinkle meant the game was over before it started but this was definitely one of those performances where the diva did what they were told, even when they were in the box seat. A good thing. Mind you Mr Bronfman got plenty of opportunity to show his skills in his encore of Schumann’s pretty, if pointless, Arabeske.

The second movement Andante is one of my favourite Beethoven moments with the meek piano weaving its ethereal tune around the dramatic string interjection. And the final movement Rondo is, in turn, one of my favourite Beethoven fist pumpers, which surrounds an enchanting central diversion. Imagine hearing that for the first time. A joy.

Just like my first time with this orchestra. Mr Jansons, who works the podium energetically despite being near 75 and having a pacemaker, exudes enthusiasm and, I’ll warrant, pride in his achievement with this band. After the concert he was presented with a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Only around 100 or so of these have been bestowed since inception in 1871, and only 1 or 2 are given out each year (mind you they were pretty generous in the first year). He joins the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, who presented it to him, and, in terms of living conductors, Dutoit, Pappano, Barenboim, Rattle, and the master IMHO, Haitink. Like I said, the smart money rates him.