Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Salzburg 1: Jansons does his thing & Wiener do theirs

Work took me to the spectacular scenery of the Hohe Tauern mountains this weekend and either side of that trip I fitted in a pair of concerts at the Salzburg Festival. On Saturday, Mariss Jansons with our dear old Wiener, which I wrote about for Bachtrack:
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. 
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.

For more, see here. There followed an underwhelming Nina Stemme (Wesendonck Lieder) and a messy Brahms 1, but I conclude with a more charitable appreciation than usual of the Philharmoniker’s perverse wont to be phenomenal one minute and downright mediocre the next. Mainly because the Strauss really was that extraordinary, and yes, also a little because I find Brahms 1 ludicrously overwrought at the best of times (if only the less daft elements of Schumann’s advice had been heeded, that’s all I’m saying).

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