Bavarian Radio SO Opens Tour With Korngold, Mahler



The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Herkulessaal of the Residenz in Munich. Mariss Jansons has long campaigned for a new concert hall.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Herkulessaal of the Residenz in Munich. The city plans to build the
orchestra a new home, for which conductor Mariss Jansons has long campaigned.
By Charles T. Downey

WASHINGTON, D.C. – One day, Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will play in the hall it deserves. When it does, a statue of conductor Mariss Jansons in or in front of the hall would not be out of place. The Riga-born conductor doubled down on his commitment to the Bavarians, whom he has led since 2003, and their quest for a new venue, by resigning from his other music directorship, at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, last year. He even pledged $270,000 of his own money, the proceeds of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, as starter cash for the fund to build the orchestra a new auditorium.

Marisa Jansons has led the Munich-based Bavarian orchestra since 2003.
Mariss Jansons has led the Munich-based orchestra since 2003.

The news came earlier this year that Munich will indeed build the BRSO a new home in time for Jansons and his orchestra to take a victory lap on its North American tour. The six-city tour opened on April 12 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts. If nothing else, the venue gave the ensemble some ideas about the sort of acoustics it does not want in its new hall. The program it offered combined Korngold’s sweet and sassy Violin Concerto with Mahler’s grand Fifth Symphony.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos set the tone in the Korngold concerto, playing the opening solo passage with exceptional rhythmic freedom that never wallowed in sentimental excess. There was plenty of bite in the double-stopped parts of the cadenza moment, and he gave the same rhythmic impetus to the “Romanze” second movement, not allowing the piece to drag. The level of technical achievement from Kavakos, in the swashbuckling feats of the third-movement hoedown in particular, was impressive, although a few intonation issues cropped up in the second movement, especially in the highest passages. Kavakos capped off the first half with an extraordinary encore, Ruggiero Ricci’s transcription of a guitar piece, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega.

As collaborators, Jansons and the BRSO, if anything, upstaged Kavakos, providing a perfectly calibrated cushion of sound around him. No section or instrument strained unnecessarily or stood out from a polished performance that had both cooing gentleness in the second movement and cinematic sweep worthy of Errol Flynn in the third. Music in Korngold’s treacly tonal style is often dismissed, unfairly, as Hollywood film score music, but that is literally true in this concerto, with several themes recycled from the movie soundtracks Korngold composed before and during World War II. In the loudest orchestral outburst, around the middle of the third movement, one could easily picture E.T. flying across the screen.

Mahler is a specialty of the Bavarians, and they played a beautiful Fifth Symphony distinguished by near-faultless solo contributions from the trumpets and horns. Mahler, however, is not so much a strength of Jansons, who tends to play it cool with this composer’s eclectic, grandiose music. One sensed the musicians adapting their excellent sound to Jansons’ ideas, responding generously to their conductor’s restraint.

Leonidas Kavakos was soloist in the Korngold Violin Concerto.
Leonidas Kavakos was soloist in the Korngold Violin Concerto.

The opening funeral march felt tinged with anger, a bitter complaint more than an expression of mourning, with the stormy second section of the first part breaking out in a dramatic clatter of sound. The chattering woodwinds were raucous and plaintive, adding layers of melancholy to the returns of the funeral march music. By holding back the tempo of the Scherzo, Jansons helped the musicians give this movement a graceful, balletic feel, with the second theme, relaxed one more notch in tempo, radiant in its tender hesitations.

Critics and composers of Mahler’s time found the Adagietto to be the most disappointing movement of the symphony, a saccharine concession to popular taste. According to conductor Willem Mengelberg, the slow movement was Mahler’s “declaration of love” to his wife, Alma, although  – as Mahler expert Henry-Louis de La Grange points out – Alma herself never mentioned that her husband intended the piece for her in that way, a lack of self-glamorization that seems uncharacteristic of her.

Jansons shaped a delicate but not over-slow performance, the ardent violins melting with longing but never mired in syrup. The movement’s quiet close was shimmering and gorgeous. The finale had all the resolution and heraldic fortitude it required to drive home the emphatic climax of this epic work – D major triumphing over the first movement’s c-sharp minor.

The BRSO repeated this program only once, April 13, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Later tour stops replace Mahler with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato (Ann Arbor on April 16, and the first of two Carnegie Hall concerts on April 19). I most regret not having the chance to hear one of Janson’s specialties, Shostakovich’s chilling Seventh Symphony (Montreal on April 15, Chicago’s Symphony Hall on April 17, and the second Carnegie Hall concert on April 20).

Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.