London can count itself extremely lucky to have had three visits by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons in as many months. While their concerts at the Proms were special events, this appearance at the Royal Festival Hall was simply breathtaking. In a programme covering both ends of the Austro-German symphonic canon, Jansons and his players produced performances of Haydn's Symphony No. 104 and Mahler's Symphony No.5 that could hardly be bettered.
Of course, the performance of the Haydn was on modern instruments but there was no sense of apologies needing to be made or of compromises being struck. The timpani were played with hard sticks but apart from that the Bavarians played out unashamedly and did so wonderfully. The ear needed a little time to adjust to the fuller sound but once it had, this was a performance of unalloyed enjoyment. Jansons' tempi were also judged to perfection. With a pared down ensemble and violins split antiphonally the reading was detailed and invigorating. Everyone, from the front desk of the firsts to the back desk of the seconds, played with precision and flexibility. This was a performance that showed that the external trappings of the period instrument movement are far less important than straight-forward, high-quality musicianship.
Fine though the performance of the Haydn was, it served primarily as an appetiser for the more substantial fare of the second half: Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The configuration of the strings changed again – now the first and second violins to Jansons' left, violas to his right at the front of the stage, 'cellos tucked where the violas usually go. He'd used this same configuration for his Strauss at the Proms and although there were times when I missed the split violins of the Haydn, I don't think I've ever been quite so aware of what a pivotal role the violas play in this work, and this was a section to be proud of, led by the youthful Hermann Menninghaus.
It seems pernicious, however, to single out any individuals or sections of this orchestra; they were all drilled to perfection and it says something for the technical security of a performance of this symphony, surely among the most taxing in the repertoire, that I never once worried that there might be a slip or smudge. Jansons himself picked out principle trumpet Hannes Läubin and horn Johannes Ritzkowsky to take individual bows but there was excellence across the board: this is an orchestra of exemplary quality.
Without Jansons' interpretation it could have been very different, though. The conductor, who is now simply unmissable in Mahler, produced a reading which never jarred, which never seemed to be an 'interpretation' with a particular point to make, he achieved the miraculous feat of allowing the music to speak entirely for itself. The performance never dragged but neither did one feel short-changed at the big moments; the flexibility of tempo meant that Jansons could employ generous rubato and rallentandi without loss of line or momentum. In the central movements in particular, the orchestra's responsiveness really showed. In the famous adagietto, flowing but never rushed, it was as if the strings' bows were all tied by a thread to Jansons' baton, such was the unity with which they followed his fluid beat. It was a performance of this movement that was fresh, natural, and supremely affecting. I've rarely heard such a lilt and rhythmic lightness in the central scherzo, either; the pizzicato passages after the dreamy horn interjections were playful, improvisatory and full of unique Mahlerian humour.
When power and angst-ridden intensity was called for, Jansons and his players likewise delivered the goods. The gnarly, swirling violin passages in the first and second movements grew powerfully like something from a gothic nightmare and, when required, the big brass climaxes - the chorale's appearence in the scherzo and the martial music in the first movement for example - were powerful but never ugly. Throughout, the clarity of the orchestral sound made a mockery of the idea that Mahler's orchestration in this symphony was muddy and disorganised. My only complaint was the decision in the programme to translate Mahler's German tempo directions into English, not in itself a bad idea but I'm not sure if 'stormingly' (for stürmisch) is actually a word, and to translate kräftig as 'strong' is rather too approximate.
The finale is one of those apotheoses in Mahler that some critics find artificial, tacked on and unearned. In Jansons' hands, however, these doubts were also allayed. The orchestra pulled out all the stops in terms of glittering virtuosity, and as the big chorale theme returned expanding gloriously to fill the hall, you could almost feel the whole audience take a deep breath of satisfaction. Needless to say, the reception was ecstatic, Jansons being called back onto the stage some seven or eight times.
There's a lot of Mahler around this season but I would be surprised if we hear anything that comes close to this performance. Jansons and his orchestra have a busy international schedule – they return to the RFH on 8 March for a programme of Wagner with Mihoko Fujimara – but I have some simple advice: if you happen to have a chance to hear them in Mahler, don't miss it.
By Hugo Shirley