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Review: A passionate Royal Concertgebouw with Janine Jansen, violin soloist

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; C10

Classical music, we're told, expresses passion. On Monday night at the Kennedy Center, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Mariss Jansons and violinist Janine Jansen demonstrated two aspects of what that can mean.

Passion can mean using the power and color of an orchestra to communicate something through music, which Jansons and the orchestra did in a majestic and even restrained reading of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.

It can also mean the superficial, unbridled emoting that is shorthand for strong feeling in bad soap operas. This brand of passion characterized Janine Jansen, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, who attacked her instrument with so much intensity that not a phrase emerged unscathed, or even whole, from the onslaught.

Much has been made of Concertgebouw's having been named, in a poll of international critics by Gramophone magazine, the best orchestra in the world. On Monday, it certainly sounded the part. There wasn't a weak link audible: The strings were rich, the brass radiant, the winds positively creamy. And Jansons, certainly one of the best conductors around, knew exactly how to drive it.

The Rachmaninoff is a kind of sport-utility vehicle among symphonies -- bigger than it needs to be and a little clumsy on the road. But Jansons steered it with conviction, as if it were much better and finer than it was, bursting out in its allegros, damping down the strings to an almost inaudible hush in the slow movement that sounded like a dream made audible, at the very periphery of consciousness, and building up that same movement's big cheesy tune -- one of Rachmaninoff's many pop-song themes -- so that it sounded downright expensive.

In fact, his approach came off as too sober for a piece that may be asking for a little bit more bling. But it was still easy on the ear.

Jansen, by contrast, was bling incarnate. She dug into her violin with a force that turned her notes gritty and ugly. This concerto is ferociously difficult, and she applied herself assiduously to making sure that none of it slipped from her grasp, reacting physically to the music even at moments when she wasn't playing.

There would be nothing wrong with this if her performance had backed it up. She has a fine technique, and when she wanted her violin to sing -- at the end of the adagio, for example -- she could make some lovely sounds. But her approach to emotion was so tense, tight and forced that the music, particularly in the third movement, was simply distorted. Jansen is Dutch, so there was national pride in having a world-class star appear with this world-class orchestra, but she didn't hold up her end of the bargain.

The program certainly could have had more bite: It featured two big, full pieces that showed the orchestra but were a little sluggish. Jansons, for all his musical brilliance, is not known for his range in programming; big orchestral warhorses are his domain. The orchestra recently took this program on tour through Spain, and played it Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, where it is following it up Wednesday night with Mahler's Third Symphony. Given the stunning sound of the ensemble, its long Mahler tradition and the weaknesses of the violin soloist in the Sibelius, I would have preferred the Mahler program to what we got. But an orchestra of this caliber doesn't come along every day, and the audience was glad to hear it in anything it wanted to play.

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