By Michael Gray
WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center Concert Hall hosted an always-welcome visit by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, presented by Washington Performing Arts. This magnificent ensemble has been called by some the world’s greatest orchestra. Others think that accolade belongs to the Berlin Philharmonic, now on its final tour under retiring conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Let’s just end this silly contest by stating what everyone believes: Few orchestras anywhere are as accomplished or as treasured by music lovers as the Concertgebouw.
For this Nov. 29 concert, which was repeated at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 30, the orchestra and conductor Semyon Bychkov brought two works: German composer Detlev Glanert’s 2005 Theatrum Bestiarum and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The world premiere of the Glanert, subtitled Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra, was given in London in 2005, and the first U.S. performance was in Chicago.
The score is metrically straightforward; in three short sections, it totals about 22 minutes. Hints of large and small creatures flit and leap around the orchestra in the first part, with the Kennedy Center organ participating more frequently in the lyrical second section, and the third introducing some foot-tapping oompahs before ending quietly. The score is dedicated to Shostakovich but hints at Ravel, Koechlin, and Schoenberg. The orchestra made the most of the exotic colors, and the audience received the composer on stage with friendly appreciation.
After intermission came the Mahler Fifth, the fourth time it has appeared during the last two seasons, including twice just this past April, with one of those performances led by the Concertgebouw’s past conductor, Mariss Jansons. The composer himself led the Concertgebouw’s very first performance in Amsterdam in March 1906. The ensemble’s then-conductor, Willem Mengelberg, was an enthusiastic champion of Mahler’s music, playing the Fifth six times before including it the orchestra’s first Mahler Festival in May 1920, a series that embraced the completed symphonies and the major works for voices and orchestra. Perhaps it was this festival that led Schoenberg to conclude that Mahler’s music was best appreciated on these gala occasions.
Today Mahler no longer needs to wait for special occasions. Perhaps there is too much Mahler around. But this orchestra performing this particular work – music that is not only difficult to play, and sometimes difficult to comprehend but also by turns glorious, tender, banal, and at times overwrought – allowed us a rare opportunity to hear a living tradition that has endured for more than a century. Here, both orchestra and Bychkov fully earned their trusteeship of this tradition.
From the first trumpet call to the final hectic bars of the crowning rondo, the Kennedy Center audience was in thrall. Quiet and attentive throughout, it exploded with applause at the final chord. Each orchestral section was superb, from high brass (that trumpet again), to solid, musical low brass in perfect ensemble, Mahler’s all-important horns speaking loudly when asked, with the strings, high to low, smooth, singing and powerful, winds inaudible in the tuttis but brightly characterful when Mahler asks for their individual or sectional presence, and, of course, the superb percussion. All responded alertly to Bychkov’s requests from very loud to very soft and all gradations in between. It was amazing to hear subito-pianos and pianissimos so miraculously achieved by so many musicians.
None of this would have made a difference without Bychkov himself on the podium. Yes, the opening funeral cortege was a bit measured, and the movement as a whole, no matter how well conducted (and it was last night), is a bit of a trial. Reaching Parts II and III, the music, conductor, and orchestra came fully into accord: The Scherzo was a delight (if the music is a little long winded, blame the composer), and the Adagietto came across as a love song, not an endless dirge. The humorous Rondo brought out the best from everyone.
So back to the question: which orchestra is the world’s greatest? On this occasion, there was only one correct answer: the Royal Concertgebouw under Semyon Bychkov. Case closed.
Michael Gray has been writing about music and recordings since the 1980s. His work previously appeared in Musical America, Fi magazine, The Absolute Sound, Classic Press, and other venues. Most recently he contributed liner notes and commentary to several retrospective box-sets from Decca Records, Deutsche Grammophon, and Sony Classical. When not writing, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of Classical-Discography.org.