Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 2 and 12
With his proven ability to secure fine playing from less than front-rank orchestras, Mariss Jansons has been for some time the darling of the daily critics. Nevertheless, Richard Osborne wasn't much enthused by the maestro's previous offering on the Royal Concertgebouw's own label, an awkward coupling of second symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms (11/05). The latest RCO issue, pairing two very different Russian masters, poses similar organisational problems for the serious CD collector. You can expect some vocalisation from the podium, too, and clarity does tend to a slip at high volume. What really matters is the quality of performance and these scores play to the conductor's strengths. Die-hard fans will simply file under J.
Stravinsky's Petrushka was among the works with which orchestra and chief toured in 2005 while Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances have long been a Jansons (if not a Concertgebouw) speciality. I can't think of a contemporary conductor with a more instinctive feeling for them, though whether this live Rachmaninov represents an advance on his marginally more deft, timbrally distinctive St Petersburg recording for EMI (12/93) is a moot point. In Amsterdam, the score's ambiguous final gong-stroke is again left to resonate, only this time well deserved applause intervenes.
The new Petrushka is typically refined, less a psychodrama for puppet characters with real-life emotions than a bejewelled showpiece with a softish grain and a distant solo piano. The wealth of fine detailing includes a couple of features that could grate on repetition. The rousing thematic statement from 0'54" comes peppered with distinctly apocryphal accents. Jansons also does something strange to the 'Moor and Ballerina's Waltz' (track 5), separating off the first note of the bassoon figure to underline the awkwardness of the ménage, a special effect loosely derived from the notation of the 1911 version.
I won't pretend that the ballet's closing stages project the terror evoked by more interventionist conductors like Leonard Bernstein or Sir Simon Rattle, yet every textural strand is given its own colour and character. While the performers' lucidity is not matched by RCO's booklet-note and track-listing, it's pleasing that some of the orchestra's brightest stars receive a name check, not least Emily Beynon, principal flute. Jansons gives her the space to excel.
The three Sony Classical productions turn out to be a sort of 'Bavarian RSO Live' by another contractual route, some arriving with, some without English-language annotations. The uneven sound reflects the use of different venues. The Shchedrin/Stravinsky CD, offering the shortest measure, is possibly the most intriguing and, in Denis Matsuev, can boast an exceptional soloist too. During his Pittsburgh tenure, Jansons recorded a whole disc of Shchedrin for retail through the orchestra's website. Although the composer has flirted with full-blown modernism, he has usually written the kind of approachable new music Jansons himself espouses through his involvement with Masterprize.
Jansons's joie de vivre raises the stakes here. Always a supremely attentive accompanist, something in his musical personality makes Shchedrin's crafty mélange of Russian-Soviet influences work better than it should. The Firebird Suite is more typical of the way I hear the conductor's music-making -eminently lucid, with many an unearthed detail to titillate the ear, yet ultimately lacking a little heart.
Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky make strange bedfellows but if the union suits, why hesitate? The Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht showcases the exceptional beauty of the Bavarian strings in a performance with few peers in the current catalogue. The Tchaikovsky may not approach the quality of the Fourth that Jansons brought to the BBC Proms in 2003 with the Pittsburgh Orchestra but it makes a useful souvenir of last season's Bavarian Pathétique. Key traits are the band's Rolls-Royce sonority and the conductor's trademark fondness for subito piano tricks and larger-than-life timpani fills.
The same lack of emotional clout pervades the Sibelius, rather tired-sounding towards the end. Only the Britten could fairly be described as routine, not helped by less than sympathetic close-up miking.
The premium nature of EMI's Shostakovich brings gorgeous sonic lustre and superior presentation with notes by our number one Shostakovich scholar, David Fanning. Neither piece is among the composer's greatest, unavoidably enmeshed with matters ideological. The Second dates from a period when there was no natural incompatibility between agitprop and avant-garde. Jansons deploys a genuine factory whistle though it sounds nasal and his choir is overly refined. By contrast the Twelfth is by nature forced, even crude: Jansons does what he can in this penultimate instalment of his intégrale.
His acclaimed (1989) account of Dvorák's Fifth, not long reissued in EMI's Encore livery, pops up again in a super-budget Dvorák box. The New World, lively and clean if less personalised than the one he recently turned in for RCO Live, lacks its first-movement exposition repeat. There's Smetana's Vltava but no Sixth. Does it matter? Not at this price!