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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brings Bartók and Mahler to Carnegie Hall

by Michael Cirigliano II

Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, Hiroyuki Ito

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall program Wednesday night rested solely on a mature concerto and an early symphony by two of the 20th century’s premier musical figures, Bartók and Mahler. Although written nearly 50 years apart, both works hinge on a large-scale adoption of rustic folk melodies and are, in turn, indicative of each composer’s inherent style.

Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons led a fluid account of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (a piece that actually received its 1939 premiere by the Concertgebouw), drawing rich colors from the strings and harp, especially in their gentle pizzicato opening of the first movement. The woodwinds and principal horn were robust and nuanced throughout, managing even the most dissonant and fleeting of passages with an effortless sensibility.

However, solo violinist Leonidas Kavakos failed to bring a similar sense of style to the work—displaying a clinical and etude-like approach to most of the first and third movements’ material. Exhibiting some intonation problems from the outset, Kavakos dug in to his bow strokes with a limited sense of finesse, rounding off each phrase as if it were the final gesture of the piece.

This approach worked during the mammoth cadenza—penned by Bartók himself—where an innate sense of showmanship dazzled the sold-out audience, but failed the concerto’s emotive and lullaby-like second movement; instead of a warm and subdued vocal line hovering above the body of strings, Kavakos was bright and lacking in dynamic variety.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was far more successful in its execution, with the Concertgebouw players delivering a stylish performance that treated the work like a fantastic concerto for orchestra. From the opening seven-octave blanket of strings and the woodwinds' evocation of nature at dawn, to the enormous horn section’s final statement of the triumphant chorale in the work’s final moments, the players were in top form.

Given such an assembly of talent on the stage, it was a shame that Jansons’ interpretation didn’t take enough risks. Mahler’s symphonic cycle is built on fast-paced and sudden changes in tempo, volume, and character (the composer was a client of Sigmund Freud’s, after all), and Jansons shied away from most of those elements: the sudden outbursts of gypsy music during the lugubrious funeral march were far less than comic, and the primal screams of the final movement’s epic flight through disturbed waters simply didn’t sting enough.

Perhaps Jansons’ style is better suited to the buttoned-up world of Vienesse and Scandinavian repertoire to really expose the bleeding heart of a composer like Mahler, but one couldn’t help but wonder what kind of electric performance the Concertgeouw players could have delivered under the energy of a Dudamel or Nézet-Séguin.

More pics (from the RCO's 2/14 concert) on the FoM Photo page.