Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
RCO Live 14005 (2 SACDs)
Patient, controlled, structured, considered: There is no doubt that all of these terms can be applied to Mariss Jansons. What’s more debatable is whether that’s for better or worse. Jansons has a knack for imposing symphonic rigour on even the most tenuously structured works, listen to his Shostakovich 13, for example, or his Mahler 7. What we get with these Bruckner recordings is very much in that spirit. Neither work has ever sounded so compact and logical, and the interconnectedness that Jansons demonstrates in Bruckner’s thinking serves as an effective defence of the composer against most of the criticisms levelled against him. There is plenty of passion here too: These performances are not unduly fast, nor are they ever mechanical. But Jansons works within tight self-imposed limits. The readings are certainly expressive, but discipline is always the watchword.
The combination of the Concertgebouw and Bruckner inevitably calls to mind the legacy of Bernard Haitink, and the comparison is instructive. Haitink too is a fairly disciplined Brucknerian, but he sets his limits differently. His tempos are generally slower, and his tuttis are louder, but the two conductors have similar visions for Bruckner’s music. They also both have excellent rapport with the Amsterdam orchestra, which plays as well for Jansons as it does for Haitink. Given the air of perfection that Jansons cultivates, orchestral playing of the very highest standard is an absolute necessity, and it is exactly what he gets. The players are also able to project the character of their ensemble – the burnished string tone, the warm brass – and add it into Jansons’ precisely calculated equation. Audio is fabulous too, and it is great to see that RCO Live has returned to SACD after a few releases without. Players, hall, and engineering come together to make for an always satisfying aural experience.
The downside though, to Jansons’ approach is the niggling feeling that he is playing it safe. Take the opening of the Sixth Symphony, which starts off at a moderate dynamic, but quickly ramps up to a blazing, trumpet-crowned tutti. This really needs a sense of abandon, as if the sheer exuberance of the orchestra is carrying the music. Of course, Jansons never lets that happen; his sense of control here is clear from the limits he sets on the brass dynamics. His phrasing is always supple, but again without ever going to extremes. He has an excellent feel for the way that some phrases should tail off gently into silence. But those Luftpausen are never dwelt on, and the next phrase is never obliged to wait.
The Seventh Symphony fares better under Jansons’ baton than the Sixth. The later work is Bruckner’s most carefully and traditionally structured symphony, so there is less of a feeling that the conductor is taming or constraining the work. The first movement of the Seventh has an eerie feeling of calm, as if the music’s sense of order has been predetermined and everything is passing as fate decrees. That sense of fate adds and extra dimension to the Adagio second movement. Here, the movement seems to be structured around the chorales; each achieves its incredibly impact partly through the impeccable preparation in the preceding phrases, and partly through the sheer unity and tonal control of the playing. It is that sense of inevitability, of a prophesy being fulfilled, that makes each of these statements so powerful. That comes from a very deep engagement with the structure and expressive language of the music – it’s what makes Jansons unique.
A personal take, then, on two great symphonies. If you are a fan of Jansons’ recent work, you’ll know what to expect here and you certainly won’t be disappointed. It is an unusual coupling, and presumably the fame of the Seventh Symphony is going to be the selling point over the less loved Sixth. That’s just as well, because the Seventh is the standout performance of the two. Not a top choice, but definitely worth hearing for Jansons’ deeply devotional approach, even if his observances are strictly to Apollo and never to Dionysus.