From Abroad, High Doses of Adrenalin

02.15.13
Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

By Corinna de Fonseca-Wollheim

Royal Concergebouw Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Today concerts of works by Mahler and Strauss hardly count as adventurous programming. But when the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was founded in 1888, these composers were grateful to find in it a passionate champion of their music at a time when it was by no means self-evident to encounter, as Strauss did with relief, “an orchestra capable of playing all passages.”

That the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is still more than capable of playing these was evident from its appearances at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The concerts celebrated this ensemble’s 125-year mastery of a repertory that under the direction of its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, still offers high doses of adrenaline. On Wednesday, it performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto; on Thursday, Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

The Bartok concerto, too, is something of a Concertgebouw specialty, the orchestra having given its premiere in 1939 with Zoltan Szekely, and here it received a riveting performance by the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Mr. Kavakos possesses a sound of unrivaled beauty and a technique that dances circles around Bartok’s difficulties. Mr. Jansons drew a lucid and balanced sound from the orchestra, made up of blocks of vivid color.

In Mahler’s symphony much of the drama came from the way that Mr. Jansons played with that balance, juxtaposing the natural world, represented by the quirky woodwind calls, with the human one of the strings and horns. The Slavic brass chorale in the third movement was beautifully mellow, making the following klezmer outburst in the woodwinds appear even more quarrelsome and subversive. The opening of the stormy finale brought a terrifying glimpse of the orchestra’s power when its forces are bundled into one.

In this symphony, as in the works by Strauss and Bruckner, Mr. Jansons proved a master of the crescendo. He knows how to build a wave of sound and ride it, from sharp squalls to a huge, rolling tsunami. The crescendo leading up to the final climax in Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” traveled an enormous distance, measured in both decibels and emotional intensity.

To a large extent, the power behind these surges comes from the lower string section and the trombones, who in the Bruckner symphony, in particular, seemed to form the ensemble’s backbone. The violins played with a clean, singing sound, which Mr. Jansons shaped into elegant melodies. In Bruckner this is not always an easy task, as much of his musical material is made of simple up-and-down scales, which lesser orchestras can easily turn out clod-hoofed.

But under Mr. Jansons the musicians of the Concertgebouw brought subtle personality to these scales the way that a good actor will work out the gait of his character to reveal nuances of physical health and mood. This was especially important in the Adagio of the symphony, where the strings play on their own for long stretches. When the brasses came through with a succession of glorious chorales, the effect was one of panoramic elation.