Arts Arts & Books

Mariss Jansons ranks at the very top of the world league of conductors

Bent with age now, he still sweeps the air with long arms like a man waving a flag

Foreign orchestras fly into London frequently enough for them to pass unnoticed. But when the Bavarian Radio Symphony came to the Barbican last week it was a hot ticket – partly because they were playing the music of Richard Strauss, which is in their collective DNA; partly because they brought with them the starry Diana Damrau, a soprano much in vogue; but mostly, I think, because the Bavarians came with their chief conductor Mariss Jansons (pictured), who ranks these days at the very top of the world league. And where some conductors in that position combine brilliance with unreliability, so you never know what you’re getting, Jansons is dependable. He always delivers – and the Barbican date was no exception.

As things turned out, Damrau was slightly disappointing: it’s a bright, clear, glistening voice suited to much in Strauss, but not the valedictory Four Last Songs which call for heartfelt warmth.

By contrast, Jansons and the orchestra were perfect. Bent with age now, he still sweeps the air with long arms like a man waving a flag – producing seamless phrases and a rich, distinctly choral sound in the Bavarian wind and brass. Immaculately blended. Thirteen years ago he had a heart attack in mid-performance that could easily have terminated his career. That he survived and is, at 76, still making music of such stunning calibre is something to be grateful for.

The British pianist Christian Blackshaw is another comeback story. Having made his name as a musician of uncommon sensitivity, he suffered a bereavement, quit the concert platform, and gave no performances for nearly 20 years. Then, slowly, he began to play again and now enjoys a reputation as a “special case” in the piano world: intense, insightful, capable of magic, but harbouring a sometimes awkward and elusive personality.

His 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall last week was all these things. It offered Mozart, César Franck and Schumann, played in every case with a transcendental calm that periodically erupted into a frenetic, rather brutal bluntness. This appealed to many in the audience: he has devoted followers. But
I can only say it didn’t do a lot for me.

Something that does is the exuberance of violinist Tasmin Little, who was also at the Wigmore recently playing a feisty programme with the pianist Piers Lane. It was so successful that I was astonished to be told – soon after, from her own lips – that she’s hanging up her fiddle to do other things. I’m not sure what they are, and it’s a strange decision when she’s healthy, relatively young, and playing well. But there it is. And violin enthusiasts around the world will be upset to hear it.