High Standards, but Standard Nonetheless
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 1
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 1
Mariss Jansons (conductor)
In this season of flagging attendance, it is comforting to note that we can still rely on the Vienna Philharmonic to sell out all three performances at Carnegie Hall. Coupled with Mariss Jansons, they appeared on paper at least to be an unbeatable combination. I attended the middle event and, in the main, was impressed with their playing. However, I was not inspired by it.
The Symphony # 1 of Brahms was the featured work and it received a reliable but rather workaday realization. Surprisingly, in the very first phrase there was an unsteadiness of entrance, several violas coming in almost an entire beat behind. The organic unfolding of the piece was interesting, but there was never the sense of the majesty or power of this Ionic column. Had this been one’s introduction to the piece, then it would have more than sufficed. However, for those of us in the crowd who had actually heard it before, it was just another day on the assembly line, albeit accomplishing very fine craftsmanship.
Jansons seemed to be going for an overall raucous concept and this is fine, especially for the ultimate piece of late Beethovenian symphonic writing. The sound of this ensemble is decidedly improved over ten years ago and I credit much of this to Seiji Ozawa. I used to write the word “pedestrian” often when describing the string section, but now “crepuscular” seems more apt. All of the playing was good, but none was great.
Further, the Vienna brass and I are fated to never hear ear to ear. The trumpets and horns were encouraged to play at a high volume in many spots and, their ingrained training being somewhat antithetical to that level of decibel strength, the result was a distinct impression of overblowing. There was also a significant loss of intonation by the finale.
The program began with a lively and naturalistic version of the Sibelius 1. Each movement was well fashioned and yet I did not feel that the whole was properly expressed. The Scherzo could have also used an infusion of adrenaline. But others were more impressed: My companion was so taken with the reading as to deliver words of thanks to the musicians backstage during the interval.
In actuality, this was a fine concert. I just expected a little more from such a prestigious ensemble.
Frederick L. Kirshnit