Prom 62: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons

Honegger: Symphony No 3, 'Liturgique'; Beethoven: Symphony No 9

Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2007 3 stars

Mariss Jansons Prom 62 review

It was difficult to understand the criteria for the selection of the repertoire for this Prom given by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. Honegger's Third Symphony and Beethoven's Ninth don't seem to share much on the surface (other than the fact that both composers had German blood - though Honegger was born in Le Havre), and Jansons did little to make the pairing coherent. The inclusion of a second performance of Beethoven's Ninth this season seemed merely a token gesture to make up for the cancellation of last year's rendition due to a fire at the Albert Hall, while the Honegger has long been one of the staples of Jansons' repertoire with various orchestras.

In the event, Honegger came out of it considerably better than Beethoven. An ardent champion of the neglected twentieth-century composer's music, Jansons has a feel for Honegger's resolution of the dual considerations of modernity and classical forms. Symphony No 3 is subtitled 'Liturgique' and is an expression of the composer's weariness about the futility of war. The programmatic connection is brought home both by the title of the symphony and those of its three movements - 'Dies irae', 'De profundis clamavi' and 'Dona nobis pacem' - which link it to a Requiem Mass.

In this performance, the first movement was lively without quite achieving enough intensity. Nevertheless, the opening chromatic figures on the second violins were a solid introduction to the toccata-like feel of the piece, with syncopated piano chords, fragmented figures on the trumpets and ominous muted trombone scales. Jansons handled the architecture of the movement well, fading out after a final few very quiet piano and double bass staccato notes. The second movement was the emotional centre of the performance. An extraordinarily nostalgic composition that employs brass chorales and yearning overlapping string melodies to communicate its elegiac message, it culminates in a floating flute melody that was played with an appropriate otherworldliness that was missing elsewhere in the concert. Bringing the symphony to an arresting close, the finale's martial theme - reminiscent of Shostakovich's 'Leningrad' Symphony - hurled us deep into the torment of war, thanks to the use of deep woodwind instruments and descending chromatic scales, but returning to the solace of the second movement at the end.

By contrast, it surprised me how little Jansons had to say about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. His inability to connect with the material was something of a shock; instead of breeding focus and direction, he flailed his arms around in a ballet of enthusiastic but largely meaningless gestures that often compromised the clarity and co-ordination of the orchestral timbre. Aside from that, it was amazing how so much energy from the conductor only resulted in enervation from the orchestra. The opening of the first movement, for instance, was played with a very flaccid attitude towards the dotted rhythms; the symphony should open with almost ethereal sounds, but this performance was very 'matter-of-fact'. The tempo was on the slow side, and there was little sense of growth. The clarinet and flute - indeed, all the woodwind - were excellent in their solos, and the trumpets played with a bright, even tone. But there was no sense of purpose, no feeling for the sharp contrapuntal passages and no portentousness, and it was all rather heavy.

The second movement was anything but a fleet-of-foot scherzo and not remotely crisp. The recurring accompaniment pattern in the violins that involves leaping repeating octaves lacked spring and decisiveness, and the largely pedestrian tempo involved too much rubato (so that the woodwind kept coming apart in the trio section). The worst aspect was the timpani playing, which was far too heavy and unresponsive. Having failed to come to terms with the classicism of the opening movements, Jansons connected more with the singing romanticism of the third movement, and if it wasn't remotely poignant, at least it was a good opportunity for the excellent woodwind section to shine.

I remember seeing footage of the great Sir Georg Solti (who died ten years ago this week) rehearsing the orchestral introduction of the fourth movement of Beethoven Nine, and, in particular, his insistence that the strings should watch him intently during the sounding of the recitative music that is later sung by the baritone so that the players remain co-ordinated. Jansons was the exact opposite: his arms and hands meant nothing to the sound that was produced, and the famous return of themes from the earlier movements had no feel for their extra-musical significance (if there's no dramatic gesture in the performance, this section has no coherence).

The soloists were a middling bunch: Michael Volle's baritone is powerful and beautiful, but his intonation was wayward during the opening statement. Tenor Michael Schade was glued to the score throughout the Turkish music, which undermined the confident sentiment of the text, and his sound production was tight; and mezzo Lioba Braun barely registered from where I was sitting at the back of the stalls. Only Krassimira Stoyanova's strongly projected soprano was truly up to scratch, though as a quartet there was little cohesion of sound because of Jansons' imprecise direction.

By the time the choral music arrived, little could save the performance. The sopranos of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus were strained and sometimes ill-tuned, but the men were a strong and unified force. But again, the fugal writing came apart due to Jansons' hyperactive conducting.

The audience, I should add, seemed to love every minute, and the cheer at the end outdid that afforded to either Abbado or Haitink last week. But this reaction seemed to me as much of an inevitability as the ostentatious display found annually at the Last Night and not necessarily, in this case, an indication of musical enlightenment.

By Dominic McHugh