EIF 2014 review: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Mariss Jansons 2

First published in The Herald on 29 August, 2014

The second of the Concertgebouw’s two Edinburgh programmes could not have been better chosen to show off this orchestra’s finest colours. The prowess of the Amsterdam band lies in its unhurried, unapologetically rotund playing. Its chief conductor Mariss Jansons tends towards slow tempos, and while that jarred with music by Ravel and early Shostakovich in the first programme, here it let us bask in the depth of the ensemble’s sound and style.

The concert opened with Brahms’s Variations of a Theme by Haydn. The chorale was stately and each variation unfolded with leisurely poise and carefully delineated contours. The programme’s second half contained two symphonic tone poems by Richard Strauss: the dense and anguished Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) and the puckish Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss wrote the former when he was only 25 and still heavily under the influence of Wagner; it is a young man’s breathless vision of death, but Jansons granted it sincere urgency and pathos. He has a wonderful knack for shaping the pinnacle of a phrase – he lets the moment linger a little, revelling in the breadth of the sound that his orchestra makes for him. His account of Till could have had more pep, but it contained some formidable wind playing: effortlessly accurate, sprightly and suave.

Sandwiched between the hefty showpieces was a recent work for violin and orchestra by German composer Wolfgang Rihm. Lichtes Spiel: Ein Sommerstück (Light Play: A Summer Piece) is all gossamer textures and shifting shadows; it meanders along and disappears as wispily as it begins. Leonidas Kavakos was a terrific soloist, fluid, burnished-toned and exquisitely attentive to the orchestra. The pale, fibrous ensemble writing didn’t capture the Concertgebouw’s best; for that, the meatier stuff.