Mahler remains a cornerstone of [the Concertgebouw’s] repertoire, and is in safe if not always conventional hands with current principal conductor Mariss Jansons. To that end, it was difficult to understand what he was striving for in the opening to this First Symphony. The ethereal seven-octave A in the strings and introduction of the falling fourth in the winds (the symphony’s thematic kernel) can be taken as the mysterious stirrings of nature or as something of greater tension, if one notes the exact placement of Mahler’s marking ‘Wie ein Naturlaut’ (‘As if voiced by nature’) as applying to the fourths alone and follows Theodor Adorno’s observation of the pedal note as an industrialized sound (the unpleasant whistling of a steam engine, he called it); but Jansons’ reading, lacking in character and yet far off from a potentially curious inertness, avoided these approaches and left a vacuum in their place. The rest of the movement unfolded flowingly, give or take the winds occasionally racing ahead of the strings, but remained unusually dull for this conductor, with interest limited to aspects of the playing – the distinctive timbre of the horns’ soft playing, produced with throat vibrato, easing into their fuller golden sound, or the celli playing much of the movement on the D string with a muted take on the famous Mengelberg portamento.
For more see here. I suppose this Mahler 1 counts as an improvement on my last Mahler encounter with Jansons, which Zerbinetta reported last year. That Fourth was a reminder of how hit-and-miss Jansons can be sometimes: I am still bewildered as to why the Scherzo’s bassoon and horn contrapuntal lines of secondary importance should be three times louder than the main voice, and with a vulgarity that would make Lenny blush. Though not as objectionable this performance remained unsatisfying in many smaller ways.
The star of this concert was Leonidas Kavakos, a violinist I heard here for the first time and whose future Vienna dates went immediately into my diary (he repeats this Bartók concerto with Jansons in January at the Musikverein and gets a Großer Saal spot for the complete Beethoven sonatas with Emanuel Ax in October, February and April). His playing had everything one could ask for in a big concerto: magnetism, depth of thought, and an astonishing range of tone colour – richness and warmth for Bartók’s broad themes, sweetness for the lyrical passages, and even when playing in the squeakier parts of the violin’s high end never an unattractive sound. The shirt, by the way, was two tones of black but polka dots are polka dots whichever way you look at them.