Mariss Jansons

Late last year I saw an obituary for Mariss Jansons, who died last November of a heart attack. I felt quite a sense of loss. He was one of those conductors whose recordings I had started to look out for. Jansons was never a household name like Karajan or Solti, but I think he was more reliable than both. (Karajan, with a few exceptions, I have always thought over-rated, while Solti could drive things along too hard — although his Ring Cycle is terrific.)

As one might expect from someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Jansons was an expert in the Russian symphonic repertoire, particularly Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. He was had great versatility, though; his Sibelius recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic are very fine, and he was at home also in the standard German fare. I have his Beethoven 3, 4 and 5, and Bruckner 8, all with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (of whom he became chief conductor in 2003). I was also able to acquire his Shostakovich cycle last year (thanks, Jane!).

Mariss Jansons studied these scores with his father Arpads, also a conductor: the latter knew Shostakovich. Mariss Jansons clearly understood that these symphonies portray the fear, anxiety and betrayal of a generation. His readings are neither flashy nor dull; even the longest movements have a sense of momentum. Climaxes are full-blooded, and there is plenty of that sense of mounting hysteria that seems peculiar to Russian music (and Shostakovich in particular). The set features the work of eight orchestras: his own Bavarians, the Berlin, London, Oslo, St Petersburg and Vienna Philharmonics, as well as the Philadelphia and Pittsburg orchestras. With the exception of the last, these are all top bands. (He was also chief conductor of the Concertgebouw.) That Jansons was able to work with all these orchestras gives you an idea of the regard in which he was held around the world. His ability to get a Russian sound from all of them is also quite remarkable.

This set reveals many of his strengths, and possibly the reason why greater fame eluded him. Maybe he became a victim of his success. Rather than being identified with one orchestra, as Karajan was with Berlin, working in so many places prevented his “brand” from being really established. I don’t think Mariss Jansons would have cared about this. For him, the music came first. 

I recently got a couple of encores to my Jansons collection. Thanks again to Jane’s generosity, I was able to get from Readings, via special order, a box set called Mariss Jansons: Portrait. This is issued by BR Klassik, a label that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra founded for the dissemination of their recordings. It is a five CD set featuring Jansons and the BRSO in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. There were not many conductors who had all these composers in their repertoire. The Shostakovich is the sixth symphony. The performance in the complete set is with the Oslo Philharmonic, so when I have time, I can compare the two performances.

I have also had the chance to hear Janson’s final thoughts on Brahms’ fourth symphony. This work is included in the Portrait box, in a recording from 2012. Jansons and the BRSO also performed this in October last year, one of his last concerts. This program was recorded by the BBC; I made a disc from this, which I played through again this evening. The timings of the 2019 performance are definitely slower than those in the 2012 recording. (The first movement is 1′ 15″ longer, which is quite noticeable.) However, the feeling is valedictory rather than sentimental. Phrases are moulded lovingly, and with tremendous insight, but very little pulling around. The orchestra plays wonderfully. No-one was going gentle into that good night. 

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