Stravinsky: Symphonies of Winds, Firebird Suite (1945 edition); Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Berio: Four Dédicaces

The Royal Concergebouw Orchestra/Jansons

Usher Hall, 2 September 2010 5 stars

Mariss Jansons'His audience expected cocktails and jazz… Cold water and a sermon for them.' So wrote Constant Lambert about the emergence of Stravinsky's neoclassical style in the 1920s. Though he wasn't primarily thinking of Symphonies of Winds, seeing the ensemble take the stage as a single choir-like bloc instead of their accustomed seating arrangements as part of a full orchestra, it was easy to slip into a didactic frame of mind. Hearing the work through Lambert's prism as a drawn-down, refined (or attenuated) version of the 'old' Stravinsky, it became clear at the structural level how later composers such as Messiaen and Birtwistle received influence beyond the obvious rhythmic and timbral appeal of the earlier work. There is an audible continuity between Stravinsky's interest in ritualistic organization and those later masters; there is a certain chilliness, though, to Symphonies of Winds that puts one in mind of draughty churches, and Mariss Jansons' fervent embrace yielded only a modest raising of the temperature.

Since the other three works in the programme shared a warmth bordering on the incandescent, the choice of this particular Stravinsky was perhaps a surprise, though welcome and instructive. How did it connect to the following work? There are continuities of ideological context and of method between the two, but also, from Bartók's perspective, a sharp critique of Stravinsky's disingenuous distancing of himself from the native oral culture that so palpably suffuses his early triumphs. For Bartók in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta as elsewhere, there is a comfortable and respectful relationship with oral materials that reflects and celebrates the culture from which it is drawn.

How different the two works are was dramatized logistically. From all-wind to no-wind, there was a lengthy intermission while the stage crew rearranged chairs, stands and microphones — a build-up to the magical opening of the Bartók that one doesn't get when listening to recordings. Jansons pushed the first movement at an almost perilously fast tempo, using the full resources of the Royal Concergebouw Orchestra strings to create a hush with a distinctively lush aurora through to the climax of the long, sustained fugal opening. It is a curious thought that, if this were Bach, one might remark on the variety of interpretation the 'strings' part of Bartók's orchestration receives — from solo players to each part through to the double orchestra Jansons deployed — and ask which is 'authentic'? This was pretty persuasive, though at odd moments, especially in the second movement, the antiphonal rapport between the two broke down a little — something that might not be so obvious on a smaller scale.

One other thing to remark, concerning the very last measures of the finale (which again was taken at quite a lick), and what one might call the curse of the recording culture. Being accustomed to hearing that last 'sentence' as a single, continuous descent, it was disconcerting, to say the least, to hear Jansons take a long pause at the top. Comparing a few recordings afterwards, there are others that do the same; others that rush unimpeded, and one compromise that stretched the moment without lingering too long.

Stealing the show, after the interval, came Berio's Four Dédicaces. The Hollywood pitch might say something like 'Webern orchestrated by Messiaen', for these were vignettes: very short; regrettably short, but so rich. Of course the pitch hardly begins to convey the density, both textural and conceptual, of these fragments — and Berio's urbane wit further deepens the satisfying glow created by this virtuoso performance. One wonders whether their associated stage works might merit a concert-hall outing?

Turning again to Stravinsky, the light that Symphonies of Winds and Firebird shed on each other is illuminating: perversely, that coldness found in the Symphonies is already there in Firebird. The radioactive intensity of the Concertgebouw's performance under Jansons' impassioned direction only serves to underscore the sense that, beneath the sumptuous cloak of flamboyant brilliance, there is a calculating professionalism bloodlessly appropriating the emotional content of the underlying oral material along with its lines and rhythms. There is a strong suggestion that what has become badly warped in the neoclassical Stravinsky is the essential organic bond between the creative act and its cultural context.

That might seem an unduly harsh observation to draw from a wonderfully committed and opulent performance, but it is a virtue of Jonathan Mills' regime at the EIF that his programming provokes deep thought about diaspora in all its shades and aspects. And if some light relief was necessary, Jansons and the Concertgebouw rounded the night off with joyfully off-duty Grieg and Dvorak bon-bons, the former allowing the strings once more to shine, the latter showcasing the brass.

The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 22 September at 7pm.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Mariss Jansons

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