Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist, projects the image of a disaffected graduate student: shoulder-length dark hair, slightly unconventional concert attire and almost no physical spark whatsoever. This, at least, is how he came across Tuesday night, when he played the Korngold concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on the first night of their U.S. tour. Maybe he didn’t care for the work, which, although he played it with a beautiful full sound, remains a more negligible piece than its frequent programming these days would indicate — although more spark, and less restraint, would at least have helped make it into the showcase and audience-grabber that it was presumably meant to be.
In any case, Kavakos wasn’t the evening’s highlight (despite his jaw-droppingly difficult encore, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by the Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega). He wasn’t even the part that the audience was most anticipating. That would be the orchestra and its conductor, Mariss Jansons, who are separately and together among the most highly regarded musicians in the world. Jansons has been to Washington a couple of times in the past decade with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the other leading international orchestra of which he was music director until health concerns led him to cut back to a single ensemble. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hasn’t been to this city for 13 years. Expectations were high, and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was pretty full, which has become an exception rather than the rule for international orchestral appearances (mainly presented, like this one, by Washington Performing Arts).
So the Korngold concerto, a flashy and gleefully trashy piece played here with a sedateness so marked it was ripe for caricature as an example of classical music’s primness, was an ornate and polished anticlimax. What people were waiting for was the Mahler Fifth, which has become not only a repertoire staple but also as much of a crowd-pleaser as any concerto.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a finely tuned instrument, a state-of-the-art group that combines the big warm sound associated with Central Europe with athletic dexterity and precision. The orchestra played beautifully, biting into the music as Jansons led them on what amounted to an emotional odyssey, a long, perhaps overly thought-out excursion through so many worlds and moods and sounds one was left drained at the end.
But it was notable that Jansons, so assured and passionate in, for example, his definitive recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies, seemed to approach Mahler as more of a conundrum. I have never thought of him as a calculating conductor, or an intellectual one, but some of this performance seemed carefully worked out, aiming for particular effects rather than spontaneously generating them. Mahler grouped this symphony’s five movements into three parts, and the program, and Jansons, presented it as if there were three movements rather than five, making for an epically long first section that alternated vivid moments with moments that seemed to drag as Jansons lingered over details. The end of the beautiful Adagietto morphed into a springboard for the finale with an adroitness that felt a little overly deliberate, for all its effectiveness.
At other moments, though, the performance coalesced and took off: a waltz through the Scherzo; the aching haze of the Adagietto; the waves of mounting intensity in the finale. It was certainly a monumental performance. It just didn’t feel quite as definitive as past experience of Jansons had led me to expect.
Washington Performing Arts will present the San Francisco Symphony on Saturday in another Mahler work, “Das Lied von der Erde.”