I keenly anticipated reviewing this CD. I’ve not always been particularly struck by Maris Jansons’ recordings, and I thought that here in live recordings with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (and in some of my favourite music) I could assess him at his best. I was not mistaken. Right from the opening, deafening, bass drum impact at the front of the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra this is an entirely satisfying performance. The tempi throughout the work are quite fast, imparting a strong urgency to this, Lutoslawski’s first major masterpiece. The language in which the music is cast is hardly more difficult than that of its model, Bartòk’s Concerto for Orchestra, and I must admit to the heresy of preferring the later Lutosławski piece. He ends his concerto with a massive Passacaglia—a device that flags a particular seriousness in comparable works by Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux, and Walton—which leads into a Toccata e Corale, furious and grand respectively, and this hard-driven performance under Jansons really convinces.
Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, Song of the Night, in complete contrast to the almost bludgeoningly direct Lutosławski, belongs to the composer’s ‘impressionistic’, mid-career works; after his Mahlerian first two symphonies, but before the piano concertante Fourth Symphony which uses folk material from Szymanowski’s beloved Tatra region. Mysterious, formally ambiguous, melodically exquisite, with a tenor solo and chorus, this music has a quality of exoticism that exactly matches the text, a Polish translation of some lines from the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi. Here again, Jansons does not linger over the opulent textures, and brings a strong rhythmic quality to the music, which can otherwise seem rather static. A slight downside of the tempi is that the segmentary discontinuousness of the architecture is accentuated, but that is an unavoidable element of Szymanowski’s writing. The tenor soloist, Rafal Bartminski, has a beautiful, apropos, sweet tone, while the blend of orchestra and chorus is satisfyingly even. Some of the brass playing in this live recording is highlighted a touch in the mix, but not so as to offend. We have been spoilt recently with magnificent recordings of this work, first by Boulez (4778771), then on DVD by the great Polish conductor Antoni Wit (ICAD5017), and I think this Jansons performance stands up satisfactorily in comparison.
The music of Alexander Tchaikovsky (no relation whatsoever, apparently) I must admit to not previously knowing. On the strength of this piece, commissioned by Yuri Bashmet and of course featuring a solo viola, I would suggest that I was not missing much, but the music is likeable enough, albeit rather naïve for my taste and, in all honesty, one-dimensional. Jansons certainly gives the music his all, in a performance at least as committed as the previous two works. But to be fair, two major masterpieces—in strong, memorable, performances—out of three is by no means negligible.