Bravo to the Bavarians

By Sedgwick Clark

I have a soft spot for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Munich. It played the first concert I ever heard in Carnegie Hall, on October 17, 1968. Rafael Kubelik conducted the BRSO in the first performance I ever heard of Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The next evening he conducted Weber’s Overture from Die Freischütz, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, and the first Mahler symphony I ever heard live, the First. Unforgettable.

So was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique under the Bavarians’ then-Music Director Colin Davis on April 28, 1986. So sonorously rich was the orchestra’s tone—especially the lower strings—that one could have mistaken Avery Fisher for Carnegie Hall.

Few works bring out an ensemble’s (and conductor’s) mettle more effectively than the Fantastique, as Mariss Jansons proved once again on May 16 on the BRSO’s latest New York appearance at Carnegie. The stupendous sweep and instrumental virtuosity of the performance caused me to miss the first- and fourth-movement repeats and the cornet that Berlioz added later in the second movement (A Ball) more than I ever recall. The extraordinary character and assurance of the winds and brass make it unfair to single anyone out, but I’ll be unfair and note the incredible dexterity of bassoonist Eberhard Marschall. The crucial drums at the end of the third movement (In the Meadows), ingeniously placed left and right offstage, perfectly evoked distant thunder, and the ferocity of the onstage timpani in the March to the Scaffold was hair-raising. Jansons didn’t roar through the last-movement’s Witch’s Sabbath and levitate at the end like Bernard Haitink (yes, Haitink!) with the Concertgebouw at Carnegie on October 8, 1982—my most memorable live Fantastique everbut the creepy instrumental detail unearthed by his steadier tempo was no less effectively goose pimply.

Ligeti’s eerie Atmosphères on May 18 produced all the necessary shivers, especially the jolting fortissimo double bass entrance about halfway through, and Jansons’ revelatory accompaniment in support of Gil Shaham’s spellbinding performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto was masterful.

Susanna Mälkki’s Schoenberg

Friends are surprised when I say that I don’t like Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. It’s an early work, not yet expressionist or 12-tone, and it has recognizable tunes. But although scored for only 15 instruments, it has always seemed so damned clotted in texture, ugly and unwieldy. Until, that is, I heard Susanna Mälkki conduct a performance with the Ensemble ACJW at Zankel Hall on May 10. She’s another of these very talented Finns, a cellist turned conductor who was music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 2006-13, and now she is making the rounds of the big orchestras and opera houses.

But back to the Schoenberg, her performance of the First Chamber Symphony glistened with transparency—open, welcoming, and friendly for the first time in my experience. And, mind you, I’ve heard at least two Boulez performances in concert and his two recordings. She also conducted a raunchy, jazzy, witty performance of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, one of his most enjoyable pieces.

Keep your eyes out for her—she will be at your orchestra soon.

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