June 04, 2020


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

     The death of any great conductor becomes an invitation to examine or re-examine his legacy and the reasons he was held in high regard – and the passing of Mariss Jansons (1943-2019) is no exception to that rule. Jansons is usually spoken of as being Latvian, and Latvia takes an understandable pride in his reputation and accomplishments, but in fact he was born when Latvia was under German occupation – and his mother, who was Jewish and whose father and brother died at the Nazis’ hands, gave birth to him in secret. Yet Jansons came to the joys of music pretty much from (and despite) his birth in those awful circumstances: his mother, Iraida, was a singer at the Riga Opera, and his father, Arvïds, conducted the opera orchestra.

     Mariss Jansons gained a worldwide reputation as music director of orchestras in both Europe and the United States: the Oslo Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony – and, from 2003 until his death, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. He had the advantage with this last-named ensemble of being able to rely at all times on perfection of playing, excellence of sound, and clarity of line – characteristics for which the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is justly renowned. This gave Jansons plenty of opportunities to focus on the details of interpretation of the sumptuous music of composers to whose works he especially gravitated, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, and Mahler. Jansons was not quite so closely identified with Bruckner, but a new BR Klassik reissue of a 2008 live recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, a work that the composer himself dubbed “Romantic,” clearly shows how skillfully and convincingly Jansons could handle Bruckner’s music when he did perform it.

     The wonderful sound of the orchestra is a given here, and the passion of the performance – the first movement, for example, has a feeling both of propulsiveness and of upward striving – is characteristic of Jansons. So is the elegant way in which Jansons, in that same movement, allows the music a relaxed, pastoral feeling that is coupled with forward motion: the movement becomes a pleasant walk through the countryside, the repeated horn calls keeping the atmosphere clear while Jansons pays careful attention to the tempo designation of Bewegt, nicht zu schnell (“emotional, not too fast”).

     The second movement here retains some characteristics of the pacing of the first, and indeed has a tempo indication that invites comparison: Andante quasi Allegretto. The pairing of these movements, in which the differing tempos and thematic materials are nevertheless closely related, is reminiscent of the situation in the first and second movements of Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) by Schubert, who was a significant influence on Bruckner. Jansons maintains the emotional level of the first movement throughout the second, and the feeling of a rather meandering country walk remains as well, helped by the clarity of pizzicato strings. The scene painting is not as overt as in, say, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony or the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 – but Jansons evokes a definite sense of the outdoors, of nature and birdsong and expansiveness, and in so doing makes the “Romantic” designation of the symphony seem particularly well-suited to the music.

     Jansons’ interpretation allows the second movement to pave the way clearly for the third movement’s “hunting” motif – and at the same time, Jansons’ pacing draws attention to the fact that all four of the symphony’s movements are intended to be moderately paced. The nicht zu schnell phrase from the first movement appears again for the Trio of the third, which here sounds very pastoral indeed, and the same phrase is there yet again for the finale. The second movement’s Italian tempo designation amounts to more or less the same thing. This pacing plan can be a challenge for a conductor, since it does not allow substantial tempo-based contrasts among the movements. Nor is the work’s emotionalism ever supposed to flag: again, the word Bewegt appears in the first, third and fourth movements. Jansons takes this instruction literally, ensuring that there is an emotional core to the individual movements as well as to the symphony as a whole. The result is a performance that pulls listeners into Bruckner’s sound world at the start and holds them there, gently but firmly, throughout the symphony.

     The fourth movement here becomes a summation as well as a capstone: it communicates the feelings already brought forth in the first three, building imposingly on them while Jansons remains in touch with the mainly relaxed mood that he has built up and sustained throughout the performance. There is warmth and beauty aplenty here, and the contrast between the massed sound of the full orchestra and the clarity of individual sections is especially welcome. The romanticism in this finale is not overdone or overemphasized, but is pervasive in a kind of scene-setting that gives the audience a wholly satisfactory conclusion of their visit to a world whose emotionalism flows from within to be reflected externally, ending in a sonically resplendent conclusion. Like other recordings by Jansons, this one leaves the impression of a conductor who, through his complete and careful immersion in the music, pulls the audience wholly into it as well. Also like other Jansons recordings, this one is highly worthy in and of itself – and also as a part of the conductor’s very distinguished legacy.

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