EIF 2014 review: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Mariss Jansons 1

First published in the Guardian on 28 August, 2014

Amsterdam’s great orchestra is unquestionably one of the world’s finest. Everything it does sounds expensive. There is such depth to its string sound, such richness to its winds, such a purr to its ensemble engine when it gets going. The players are fantastically responsive to their revered chief conductor Mariss Jansons, collectively poised at the end of his baton. Jansons is standing down at the end of next season for health reasons; whoever follows him has enormous shoes to fill.

It feels slightly churlish to find fault with such magnificent playing, but there were several moments during the first of the Concertgebouw’s concerts in Edinburgh when the orchestra’s plushness, Jansons’s weighty interpretative choices and the spry character of the music didn’t quite line up. The programme opened with Shostakovich’s First Symphony. The slow movement was the dark heart of the work, solemn and hushed with tremendous gravitas. But the outer movements needed more jolt between the skittish, sardonic and frankly crass and the moments of quiet solace. The Concertgebouw handled the latter superbly but never clinched the spirit of the former. The sound was always polished; Jansons’s pacing was steady and sometimes just slow.

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, never usually one for understatement, gave an affectionate and surprisingly demure account of Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto. The dialogue between him and the orchestra didn’t always flow fluidly, but he kept his flamboyant spark subtle and his dynamics reigned in; his articulation of the Adagio’s beautiful melody was simple and tender.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (Second Suite) was the orchestra’s showpiece. Here Jansons’s broad sweep was splendid in Lever de jour – the crest of the wave was glittering and magisterial. Yet the Danse générale remained controlled, and didn’t whip up the irrepressible frenzy that a truly thrilling performance of this work should.