Mariss Jansons – as I knew him

Michael McManusTue 3rd December 2019

‘As I write, I am still shocked and shaken that so potent a musical voice has been stilled, to my mind, well before its time’

Exactly seven years ago this week I was in Tokyo, with my good friends from the wonderful Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, to attend a glorious full cycle of the Beethoven symphonies in the Suntory Hall. The conductor, of course, was the great and, suddenly and heartbreakingly, late Mariss Jansons. It was without question one of the musical experiences of a lifetime. The sheer love of the audience – the depth of their appreciation – was overwhelming.

It was, for me, a unique privilege. Mariss was the toast of the town. Between concerts and rehearsals I spent precious time with him and learned how profoundly he respected the people and culture of Japan, not least because he shared their fascination with the evolving, modern science of acousticians. Like them, he dreamed of the perfect concert hall; and what a lasting tribute it will be to his memory, if the great German city of Munich really does build a hall that is truly worthy of its past, present and future.

It’s said that our mortality defines us; and few live under the shadow of mortality for longer than Mariss Jansons did. Certainly, it made him no less human; almost certainly, it heightened his art in ways the rest of us can never fully comprehend. When Charles Kennedy (who would have turned 60 last week) died in 2015, a mutual friend said it was ‘shocking but not surprising’. So it was too, when I heard Mariss had succumbed at last to the debilitating heart condition that had dogged him for decades. I knew how ill he was, how ill he had been, how his father had died at a much younger age from a similar condition, but somehow persuaded myself his remarkable spirit would keep him on the podium for a good few years yet. At such times, I envy the professional obituary writers, who have a double advantage over me: personal detachment and a working draft ready on the stocks. As I write, I am still shocked and shaken that so potent a musical voice has been stilled, to my mind, well before its time.

Music has been a vital part of my life since childhood and growing up in London afforded me early opportunities to see and hear a number of vastly influential, major musical figures perform in the flesh. Thinking about it now, as I contemplate the painful gap that Mariss’s death leaves in my life, I realise there were really five musicians who transformed a precocious interest in music into something far deeper: the infinite polymath Leonard Bernstein; a singer, Jessye Norman; and three conductors, each so different from the others, Günter Wand, Klaus Tennstedt and Mariss Jansons. Lenny went first, then Tennstedt, then Günter; and now, in the space of a few months, Jessye and Mariss are gone too. There will be no more concerts. Batons have been laid down forever and the greatest voice I ever heard has been stilled. The vestiges of my formative years are committed exclusively to memory.

I first encountered Mariss through his Tchaikovsky interpretations and very much not in person, through his legendary telecasts of the symphonies with the then BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and ‘those’ Chandos recordings from Oslo. My first experience ‘in the flesh’ was not long in coming, though, a little over 30 years ago, sitting with my parents in the front stalls of an only half-full Barbican. An unremarkable Beethoven Symphony No 2 was followed by a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 that was simply incendiary. I knew at once I should never hear a rendition to match it. An enthralled audience leaped to its feet and demanded more. It was fortunate the orchestra had prepared four encores, the last of which was the Storm from Peter Grimes – then an unfamiliar piece to me. On the platform and in the hall, we all knew we had been part of something special that evening.

‘I shall miss him terribly. Fading memories, augmented by his remarkable recorded legacy, are all we have now’

In the years that followed, Mariss Jansons’s reputation grew and grew and I had the privilege of attending his concerts in Amsterdam and Munich, Tokyo and Berlin, Dublin, London and beyond. He never, ever disappointed. Conducting is often parodied as a calling that imposes a cruel, yet inevitable, bipolar tension between heart and head, technique and inspiration, between classicism and romanticism, Dionysus and Apollo. Mariss made a nonsense of all that. He was meticulous alright, always respectful to the score and scrupulous in ensuring he researched every factor that might be germane to how a piece should be performed, but he never relied on technique alone. Sometimes he would use a theatrical flourish to generate the last iota of excitement, as witnessed by the sudden accelerando he would insert into the coda of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Nothing happened by chance, however, or against the spirit of the composer or the piece.

The breadth of his repertoire was astonishing, from the baroque to contemporary; and he mastered it all. What a sad thought, that he had no principled or musical reservations about the completions of Mahler’s Symphony No 10. He was keen to learn and perform the piece, but simply never had the time. Now it’s too late.

There are few consolations to be had when someone so gentle, kind and talented is lost to us, but Mariss’s legacy is formidable – and tangible too. He willingly acceded to the demands of the recording industry and much of his best work was done with a radio orchestra, so being recorded was second nature to him. I have several personal favourites, but none can come close to the electrifying experience of being in a concert hall with Mariss and 80eighty or 90 premier musicians.I shall cherish his Haydn and Beethoven, his Tchaikovsky and Bruckner, his Mahler and Stravinsky. I am sure future generations will do so too, but they will never experience what we did.

I shall miss him terribly. Fading memories, augmented by his remarkable recorded legacy, are all we have now. One day, perhaps soon, perhaps not so soon, I will pop a DVD into a tray and relive some of those priceless musical experiences, beyond all gold. For now, though, the music is stilled and I quietly mourn the man.

Michael McManus's picture

Michael McManus

Michael McManus is an author, journalist and playwright. He is the author of 'Edward Heath: A Singular Life' (Elliott & Thompson, 2016)

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