Mariss Jansons Delivers AM-Berlioz in Vienna

Vienna, May 30, 2019; Musikverein—I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet anyone who thinks Hector Berlioz in the AM is a terribly bright idea. Certainly not the ingeniously over-egged, self-important frivolity of his Symphonie fantastique, not even with Mariss Jansons leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, as was the case on the present matinee on May 30. Then again, if it has to be Berlioz at such an early hour (or any hour, as far as I care), it might as well be with Mariss Jansons, who tends to emphasize clarity, linearity, delicacy, and forward drive in Berlioz, rather than wallowing in superficial effect. Exhibit A: his superbly refined recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (review upcoming), easily the finest for those who are not necessarily card-carrying Berlioz-admirers.

Much of this, even with the more indulgent Vienna Philharmonic, was on evidence on this occasion—at least in the first two-and-a-half movements: Elegant and to the point in “Rêveries – Passions”; alert and chirpy in “Un bal”, and much aided by Anneleen Lenaerts’ splendid harp-playing which wasn’t drowned out in the crucial segments. The flutist had moments to shine and used them well. The English horn opened “Scène aux champs” like a pre-shadow of the third act of Tristan und Isolde. But then the tempo started to sag midway through that third movement (immediately exposed by a thunderous coughing cascade from the audience at the earliest next opportunity) and it never picked up until the bitter end.

All the good intentions couldn’t undo the ensuing tedium of the “Marche au supplice”. It opened—a few slips of the brass aside—with a careful, deliberate build-up that had the potential to unleash something terrifying, assuming the audience only stayed with Jansons. But Jansons never ceased control and the March never got to its brutal haywire stage. That’s bound to make the work sound as episodic as it probably is, and time seemingly began to flow backward. As Lenin is well known to have said, in connection with the Symphonie fantastique: If (Austro-) German sorceresses wanted to hold a Witches’ Sabbath on a train station, they’d all first buy platform tickets. These certainly did. What should be spooky and otherworldly—and is, on Jansons’ recording (or was, with Kirill Petrenko and the Bavarian State Orchestra in the same place, four years ago)—sounded decidedly above-ground, daylight generic. Not bad, but not exciting.

Before the break, Jansons—who is visibly getting old, fast—worked on Schumann’s First Symphony with the orchestra. With routine, good will, and trying not to use too heavy a hand (partially successful, that noble aim), the VSO made its way through the symphony. After a smeared entry of the strings right up front, the orchestra—notably, for a matinee—ran like a well-oiled machine. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such delicate triangle playing before noon, as I did here, midway through this first movement. The excellent flutist, a touch bright and with just a minor amount of air, did Schumann proud—right in line with the well-above-average winds and brass. Following an elegiac and soft-bellied Larghetto, though, came the Scherzo: It was seemingly also kept “Larghetto”, certainly not “molto vivace”; ending up grandiose, in a pompous way, instead. At least the Mendelssohn-esque finale was delivered nicely, making the concert a very decent affair on a Thursday mid-morning in Vienna.