Pass the Hollandaise

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2009

You can tell from the opening two bars of the Symphonie fantastique whether it’s the real thing: those detached oboe triplets have to drag a little — a ritard not marked in the score — as they move up to E-flat, to suggest Berlioz’s opium-dream languor. This was the real thing. Jansons was very delicate with the slow (and for once it was slow) introduction, marking his paragraphs with pointed pauses. When he did let loose, the orchestra maintained its transparency, Jansons crossing the bar lines to convey the kinetic asymmetry of Berlioz’s phrasing. He didn’t take the exposition repeat; for this dramatic reading, no repeat was needed. The first movement climaxed in a delirious ejaculation, with pounding timpani, and then the “religiosamente” coda, as reverent as Romeo and Juliet contemplating Friar Laurence’s cell after their night of love.

The “Un bal” second movement, its onset delayed by an inexcusable degree of coughing from the audience, danced lightly, preserving in the cellos and basses its pulse points even when Jansons sped up. The clarinet solo that marks the entrance of the Beloved had an easy elegance — you could practically see the light from the chandeliers glittering off her tiara. Compensating for the absence of Berlioz’s optional cornets, which give texture and a military air to the proceedings, was the Viennese lilt — those little luftpausen — with which the movement waltzed.

The cor anglais and oboe duet that opens the “Scène aux champs” was briefly compromised by an ambulance siren outside, but the soloists were undeterred, and the rustic purity of the strings thereafter conjured thoughts of Virgil’s First Eclogue, a contented Tityrus watching the smoke curl up from his farmhouse chimney. The two big climaxes unfolded naturally, without hysteria, though one might have asked for a greater sense of foreboding, and the thunder at the end seemed very close. Ruth Visser’s sinuous cor anglais was a joy throughout. The “Marche au supplice” strutted and swaggered, as if the tumbrel carrying our hero to the guillotine were rocking from side to side — no haste here, either, just a glorious solarity from the brass that made me wish Jansons had taken this repeat. And the Witches’ Sabbath finale was the scarier for not going helter-skelter, Jansons weighting the laughter and letting the round dance go in tempo, an actual dance. The Beloved, now represented by the calliope-like E-flat clarinet, usually comes off as a whore; here she was a courtesan. It all built to another blinding brass burst of light.

Only one encore, “Solveig’s Song,” from the incidental music Grieg wrote for Peer Gynt, the strings noble and refined, the dance pulse gently swaying. The audience was ready for more (in San Francisco the orchestra also encored the Rakoczy March from Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust), but more was not forthcoming. They had nothing left to prove.

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