Thursday, February 27, 2020

Messiaen: L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire - Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi
Daniel Foley

Messiaen – L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi ALPHA 548 (

To celebrate Paavo Järvi’s appointment as their new music director, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has released this admirable collection of early orchestral works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer demonstrably dear to Järvi’s heart. The disc begins with Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931), a lesser-known work that reflects a crucial time in Messiaen’s life; it bears an unsettling autobiographical program note that begins, “My youth is dead: it was I who killed it.” Perhaps feeling it was too personally revealing, he withdrew the work from his catalogue for decades. It was eventually published in 1997. This is followed by the transcendent “symphonic meditation” Les Offrandes oubliées (1930), one of his most successful works in this genre.

Notably absent in the works of the 1930s, Messiaen’s preoccupation with birdsong is front and centre, alternating with retrospective hymnal passages reminiscent of his earlier style, in the late Un sourire (1989), which premiered December 5, 1991, as Messiaen’s exquisite contribution to the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The recording concludes with the original orchestral version of the lengthy, supremely Catholic devotional tone poem L’Ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques (1932/33); the later 1934 version, with a different third movement, is a well-known crown jewel of the organ repertoire.

Järvi maintains an excellent command of the orchestra throughout. The dense harmonies projected by the Zürich strings are sublime and expertly balanced, the percussion section is impressively resonant and solo passages are outstanding. A very fine job indeed by the recording team, sourced from live performances from January and April 2019.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Monday, February 17, 2020

Meet the Artist – Paavo Järvi

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

I was born into a family of a conductors, so it was my father.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

There have been many influential musicians along the way who have been important influences for me – my father, my teacher Max Rudolf at the Curtis Institute of Music and Leonard Bernstein as far as conductors go. But there have been also influential instrumentalists and composers who have been important in my life, for example Radu Lupu and Arvo Pärt.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Every part of conductor’s life is challenging. From the enormity of the repertoire to the geography and travel.

The most fulfilling aspect is that a conductor can spend his or her life with talented human beings and explore music of geniuses like Mahler and Beethoven, for example

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

One communicates ideas through various methods – with the eyes, verbally, with gestures and body language.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

I see my role as a medium between the composer and the musicians. The role is to formulate a point of view about the piece through study of the score and to convey this to the musicians.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
There are many works I would love to conduct but one lifetime is not enough to get close to all the masterpieces in the repertoire.

Do you have a favourite concert venue in which to perform?

The Zürich Tonhalle, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Musikverein in Vienna, just to name a few.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Hard to name a favourite composer but I do have a soft spot for music of Sibelius and Bruckner.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when you can make music on the highest possible level with like-minded musicians.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Make sure you love music enough to make it your profession and then be prepared to work very hard.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

On the planet Earth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think it would be the balance between personal and professional life.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m looking forward to the upcoming tour to Europe with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Paavo Järvi conducts the NHK Symphony Orchestra in music by Takemitsu, Rachmaninov and Schumann at London’s Royal Festive val Hall on 24 February. Full details

(Artist photo: Julia Baier)'

Friday, February 14, 2020

Paavo Järvi conducts orchestral works by Bartók
James Longstaffe

Since 2016, the Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo has been Paavo Järvi, and together they have made several acclaimed recordings of music by Mahler and Richard Strauss. Now comes their most accomplished album yet of three works by Bartók: alongside characterful accounts of the Divertimento and the Dance Suite they offer an unsettlingly eerie performance of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

The orchestra has over the years attracted an impressive list of previous conductors, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Charles Dutoit, and André Previn, and it only takes a few moments of listening to them to understand why: the sound they make is really rather beautiful, especially in the string section, which plays with great finesse. In fact, so technically polished are they that sometimes this can be detrimental: in an interview with my colleague Katherine, Järvi commented that when performing music such as Stravinsky and Bartók he would often have to ask the orchestra to stop sounding so beautiful and to make their playing much uglier! Although I feel they could have gone even further in a few places, the results of this attention to quality of sound are most evident, particularly the opening of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, where the muted violas bring a detached coldness that is quite unnerving.

The whole first movement is extremely intense; the tension builds as more and more string parts enter, but even with multiple independent lines going on, you can hear with absolute transparency each and every one of them. Again in that interview, Järvi mentions how important clarity and precision are to this orchestra, and there’s no better example of that than here.

For me, the highlight of both the piece and this recording has to be the third movement: with its desolate, repeated xylophone notes, timpani glissandos, and harsh, angular string writing, it’s an extraordinarily creepy movement full of quiet despair. It’s hard to describe in words, but the passage about two and a half minutes in where pianissimo trills and a chain of ascending and descending glissando wails from the violins accompany a chromatic melody from celesta and two solo violins, punctuated by implacable major sevenths from the piano, is so disturbing and chilling that I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing I would want to listen to in the dark! It's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick chose this precise section of the piece for part of the soundtrack to The Shining.

Especially in this piece, Järvi often takes a relatively expansive view on tempos (Bartók actually gives quite detailed breakdowns of the timing of movements here and in the Divertimento for string orchestra, which admittedly Järvi frequently exceeds, but then very few other recordings get anywhere near either!), but this is all for the very good reason of allowing the music the space it needs. Not once did I feel that the pace was sluggish or dragging in any way, it was simply a pleasure to wallow in the tremendous sounds that the NHK players were making.

The versatility that the orchestra possesses is amply demonstrated in the Divertimento, where they are adept at navigating its changing moods: the opening is full of richness and depth, and yet they bring a huge amount of grace and deftness when required. I can’t say enough good things about this recording: the variety of sounds that they make is nothing short of stunning, turning from the gentlest of pianissimos to the most ferocious of fortissimos with great ease. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

 Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Divertimento & Dance Suite

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Paavo Järvi on the NHK Symphony Orchestra
Katherine Cooper

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

Since being appointed Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in late 2016, Paavo Järvi has programmed a significant amount of twentieth-century and contemporary music as well as conducting acclaimed performances of their trademark German Romantic repertoire in Japan and across Europe, and this month sees the release of a slew of new recordings including works by Mahler, Strauss, Bartók, Wagner and Mussorgsky. I met up with him recently in London to discuss the orchestra’s special qualities, extending the comfort-zones of players and audiences alike, and why he believes that ‘a good young conductor is an oxymoron’…

Do you rehearse in English, Japanese, or a mixture of both?

We work mostly in English, with a couple of German and Italian words thrown in, and occasionally a very basic Japanese phrase from me! But very often I just sing – not necessarily because of any language-problem, but because you can communicate far more by singing a line than by getting into long involved philosophical discussions. (In fact I think that’s sound advice for any conductor anywhere!). If you go in with a strong enough view of something and if you are connected to the players then it’s relatively easy to get your point across, and I’ve seen that with visiting soloists too - Truls Mørk did an incredible Don Quixote with us recently, and just the way he played it made everybody adapt to his view of the piece.

Are there significant differences between Japanese and European orchestral culture – both in terms of players’ backgrounds and audience expectations?

Very much so. Even though the NHK musicians have often studied in the US and in Europe (a lot of the younger musicians in particular are German-educated), they still need to function in an extremely well-defined Japanese culture, and there are certain things that are simply non-negotiable. They are taught that there is a right thing and there’s a wrong thing, so sometimes when I spontaneously ask for something in the rehearsal – say, for a piano to be marked slightly up for a particular instrument - I can see them checking the score and thinking ‘But that’s not what Mahler [or whoever] writes!’. And I’ll say ‘Look, I understand that it’s marked piano, but in this context we need a little bit more of your voice because it’s all relative - a tuba piano is going to be a bit louder than a clarinet piano’.

There’s also an intense hierarchy at work in orchestras, as in Japanese society, so there is a very specific road which you have to follow in order to progress in your career. And it's a slightly conservative culture, so when it comes to programming, something like Bartók is considered ‘new’ music. Takemitsu (whose music we recorded recently) is rather different, because that’s a matter of national pride, rather as Arvo Pärt is for us in Estonia. There are some very good Japanese composers like Toshio Hosokawa who are making a significant name for themselves, but Takemitsu is the only one who's truly internationally-known and he’s taken on an almost legendary status for them. Without that national connection they might not necessarily take his music to their heart in the same way: if you programme Hindemith or Lutosławski, for instance, there is a hardcore fan-base who’ll be totally into it, but your typical audience-member really wants Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and Bruckner…Germanic music, essentially.

When and how do you think that preference developed?

I think the Japanese interest in Western classical music really started when Karajan first visited with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the 1950s, and it’s that sort of repertoire that remains central. In the 60s, 70s and 80s NHK worked with a lot of German conductors, but in the recent past they had Vladimir Ashkenazy and Charles Dutoit as music directors - so two very great musicians who didn’t necessarily concentrate on the Germanic core repertoire. Ashkenazy in particular was less interested in doing Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner than exploring more esoteric repertoire which really fascinated him, which I think is absolutely the right approach and really broadened their range. These days they play Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers all the time, but the prevailing belief is still that the ‘real’ music is Germanic, and that the real conductors are the old Germans and Austrians. Anybody old is preferred, but especially if they’re Old World. And I think they have that age thing exactly right: in the West we have this obsession with young conductors, but to me a ‘good young conductor’ is an oxymoron! Conducting is a profession of experience, so there are young conductors who are talented, promising or exciting, but really ‘good’? I don’t think so. (Having said that there are also very many bad old conductors, but that’s a different issue!). The Japanese culture is built on old masters and apprenticeship: instead of starting out by expressing your own opinions you copy everything the master does stroke-by-stroke, and once you’re able to do that then you can become your own man. That’s exactly how Japanese society works, and to me there’s a very clear logic to it.

Given that slight cultural conservatism which you mentioned, is it a challenge to get the ugliness and wildness that you often need for Stravinsky and Bartók?

Ugliness and wildness are not easy to come by anywhere these days! Wherever you do Rite of Spring now it always sounds too beautiful, too polished and too easy: it used to be so difficult for people to read that that added a kind of nervous tension in itself, but today everyone plays it so well and so often that you almost feel that there’s no longer anything really scary about it. (I find something similar with Bruckner’s scherzos at times: you have something that’s supposed to sound like a heavy-footed Ländler but what you end up with is an elegant Viennese waltz...). The technical capacity of NHK is unsurpassed, to me – I don’t know any other orchestra that can play that precisely, so very often I would have to stop and say ‘This is too beautiful! It has to be much more brutish!’, and they’d do it and look shyly at each other as if to say ‘Is this OK?! We sound so ugly!’. Sometimes I had to practically beg them to make more unsophisticated sounds.

The orchestra has quite a substantial Strauss discography, but as far as I can see this new recording of the Sixth is their first commercial Mahler recording...

They’d never recorded any Mahler before as far as I’m aware, which is surprising given how often they play his music - I’ve done all of the symphonies with NHK, and they’ve acquired such a reputation in this repertoire that we’ve had to turn down a few requests from guest conductors who wanted to come and do it as well! We don’t plan to record a complete cycle, because there are so many other pieces which I think they would do incredibly well, such as the Turangalîla-Symphonie. And another priority was the Bartók recording, which has always been my dream because Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Divertimento and the Dance Suite don’t often get to be on the same disc: I think that particular combination was kind of shocking to the musicians, but boy they played it well! It’s amazing how well they actually play this repertoire, and I think that’s partly because clarity and precision are incredibly important for the Japanese. If you really listen carefully to even the greatest European orchestras, you find that a lot of things are done fairly approximately, but with the Japanese you can hear every line.

Is the Suntory Hall acoustic conducive to that clarity?

Oh yes, environment is everything. All our NHK recordings are done there and it’s one of the best natural acoustics in the world – artificial acoustics are often used in recordings, but we don’t have to do that so much because the hall itself is so fantastic. It’s become one of the venues everybody wants to go to, in a way that really helps us.

The orchestra recorded a lot of Italian opera in the mid-twentieth century – has that fallen out of vogue, or would you consider exploring that with them in future?

I’d love to do that kind of stuff, but there's so much I’d love to do and so little time! In terms of opera, the preference is for Wagner, as Italian repertoire is pretty well covered by imported productions and visiting companies: smaller Italian houses like Torino (and sometimes even La Scala) regularly come out and do a whole month of verismo or bel canto, so there’s definitely a market for it but NHK are fundamentally a symphonic orchestra and it's not quite in their DNA.

What else is on your twentieth-century repertoire wish-list with NHK?

I’d like to do Nielsen and Sibelius – not the popular Sibelius symphonies like 2 and 5, but some of the others. They play some of the popular Prokofiev and Shostakovich pieces (things like Romeo and Juliet and the Fifth Symphony) but there’s a lot of wonderful music by those two that isn’t programmed so often. We recently played a programme of Polish music which included Bacewicz’s Concerto for Strings, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra and Little Suite, and the Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 2: it was very difficult to convince people that they needed to play or hear Bacewicz but once they got going they loved it, and I think that was the first time ever that her music was played in Japan. I also plan to do some Sven-Erkki Tüür, and Hans Abrahamsen’s new Horn Concerto, which was premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker last month and was co-commissioned with NHK. And the next recording that’s coming out is more Stravinsky: the Symphony in Three Movements, Jeu de Cartes and Apollon musagète, which is an interesting combination in that it’s all dance music – if the Ballets Russes inspired the Diaghilev pieces, then these three are pure Balanchine.

Paavo Järvi & the NHK Symphony Orchestra perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at South Bank Centre on Monday 24th February as part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

PÄRNU MUSIC FESTIVAL 2020 - Familienbande
Peter Krause

Die Dirigentendynastie der Järvis führt in Estland mit dem Pärnu Music Festival Orchestermusiker aus Ost und West zu einem Weltklasse-Klangkörper zusammen.

© Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi am Strand von Pärnu

Sanft streift der Seewind über die Dünen des gigantisch breiten und extra feinkörnigen Sandstrands. Dahinter laden schattige Park­anlagen zum Lustwandeln während der Siesta-Zeit. Davor wird die einst die Schiffe der Hanse einladende, gut geschützte Bucht von Pärnu zum Kinderparadies, denn so seicht und sicher nimmt die Ostsee sonst nirgends an Tiefe zu. Der Weg zum Schwimmen gleicht einer wohligen Wasserwanderung. Die gute alte Sommer­frische, als Ferienbegriff sonst etwas aus der Mode gekommen, wird hier fürwahr Ereignis. Zumal die Küste der viertgrößten Stadt Estlands nicht durch massentouristische Ferienkomplexe verschandelt ist, sondern sich ihren Charme eines Kurorts des 19. Jahrhunderts bewahrt hat.

Der Kursaal mit Konzertmuschel wurde erhalten, die Jugendstil- und Bauhaus-Villen aus der ersten Phase estnischer Unabhängigkeit zwischen den Weltkriegen aufwändig herausgeputzt, das angestaubte Kurort-Image liebevoll sensibel in die moderne Spa-Welt überführt. In manchen der schnuckeligen nordischen Holzhäuschen haben sich Buchantiquariate, Kaffeehäuser und Pizzerien angesiedelt. Der Transformations­prozess vom Sozialismus in die Gegenwart erfolgte sensibel, geschichtsbewusst und beherzt zugleich; der kluge junge Bürgermeister, der zum Studium in England weilte, steht beispielhaft dafür, dass die alten sozialistischen Eliten hier nichts mehr zu sagen haben, Investitionen nicht in dubiosen Kanälen versickern, sondern zum Wohle von Land und Leuten eingesetzt werden.

© Indrek Aija

Spielstätte beim Pärnu Music Festival: Villa Ammende

Europäischer Sprachenmix und Tiefenentspannung

Die Strategie zeigt Wirkung: Die Hotels sind voll. Besonders die finnischen Nachbarn haben die estnische Küste für sich entdeckt, doch längst zeugt ein europäischer Sprachenmix davon, dass Entspannung hier ein Prinzip ist, dem all jene Urlaubs­hungrigen folgen, denen der Süden zu heiß und zu laut, der Norden hingegen zu langweilig oder zu teuer ist.

Schließlich zeugt die Perle Pärnu vom kulturellen Reichtum und wiedergewonnen Bewusstsein Estlands. Ein zarter Hauch von westlicher Freiheit wehte hier freilich bereits, als Sowjet­spitzel noch das Leben im Riesenreich verfinsterten. So wussten Komponistengenie Dmitri Schostakowitsch oder Geigenlegende David Oistrach die Oase namens Pärnu zu schätzen, sie kehrten Sommer für Sommer hierher zurück. Die privaten, oft spontan anberaumten Kammermusik­abende Oistrachs, der Studenten und Musikerfreunde gern in seine grün angestrichene Datscha lud, gehören denn auch zur Inspirationsquelle für Paavo Järvi, den Ort, an dem er einst als Kind dem großen Schostakowitsch vorgestellt wurde, in eine Art musikalisches Sommercamp zu verwandeln. So ging 2011 das erste Pärnu Music Festival über die Bühne, im August 2020 steht nun das Jubiläum mit der zehnten Ausgabe an.

Die Rückkehr der Järvis in ihre Heimat hat auch eine dezidiert politische Dimension. Sie ist Statement. Denn die Dirigentendynastie gehört zu den berühmtesten Exilanten des kleinen Estland. Neeme Järvi emigrierte mit Frau und Kindern in 1980ern in die USA, er selbst stieg zu einem Dirigenten-Weltstar auf, seine Söhne studierten in der Neuen Welt. Heute hat das Oberhaupt der Musikerfamilie längst wieder einen Wohnsitz in der Hauptstadt Tallin, weitere Mitglieder der Järvis sind in ihre Heimat zurückgekehrt. Der Braindrain, mithin der gefährliche Abfluss von meist jungen Talenten als Kennzeichen der einstigen Sowjet­länder, er scheint hier nun nicht nur gestoppt, er kehrt sich um. Denn die Lebensqualität in Estland stimmt, die Altlasten der Diktatur sind weitgehend beseitigt, russische Müllkippen wurden in blühende Naturschutzgebiete zurückverwandelt. Sogar das ein Viertel der Stadtbevölkerung fassende Plattenbau-Trabantenviertel von Pärnu wurde aufgehübscht und hat heute längst westlichen Wohnstandard erreicht.

© Toomas Olev

Eine der schönsten barocken Kirchen Estlands: die Elisabeth-Kirche
Mitunter ist Talent erblich

Das Festival seinerseits ist Ausfluss der Familienbande. Opa Neeme sowie die Brüder Kristjan und Paavo geben gemeinsam ihr Wissen an Nachwuchsdirigenten weiter, die mit dem besonders jung und besonders exzellent mit estnischen Musikern besetzten Akademie­orchester arbeiten können und die Ergebnisse der Meisterklassen dann in einem beim Pu­blikum überaus beliebten Abschluss­konzert präsentieren. Und im eigentlichen Festivalorchester versammeln sich neben Paavo Järvis Lieblingsmusikern aus der Kammer­philharmonie Bremen, dem Frankfurter Radiosinfonie­orchester, den Münchner Philharmonikern und dem NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester oder den großen russischen Klangkörpern natürlich auch die besten Musiker Estlands, darunter so manche, die wiederum auf den Nachnamen Järvi hören. Mitunter ist Talent eben erblich.
Entdeckerfreude beim Pärnu Music Festival

Damit die im Klassikbetrieb der Großstädte gefährliche Routine hier ein absolutes Fremdwort bleibt, setzt Paavo nicht die Schlachtrösser von „Pathétique“ oder Fünfter von ­Tschaikowsky auf das Programm des Festival­orchesters, sondern im vergangenen Jahr etwa dessen Sinfonie Nr. 2, die kaum jemand im Orchester je gespielt hat. Gemeinsame Neugierde, Maximal­motivation, Entdeckerfreude prägen das Weltklasseensemble. Das gewählte Repertoire spiegelt zudem die Einflüsse, die hier wirksam wurden: russische und deutsche Komponisten, dazu jene Meister der Gegenwart, die der estnischen Erde entstammen und ganz große Musik schaffen: Altmeister Arvo Pärt und der mit seinen sechzig Jahren jung gebliebene, persönlich anwesende Erkki-Sven Tüür zählen zu diesen Neutönern, deren Werke von den Festivalfans mit nicht weniger kennerischem Beifall bedacht werden wie jene des Dänen Carl Nielsen oder des Böhmen Antonín Dvořák, dessen Cellokonzert der norwegische Stargast Truls Mørk so gar nicht als Star, sondern als Erster unter Gleichen mit warm abschattiertem und mit der dunklen Streicherglut des Orchesters intim abgemischtem Ton spielt.

Pärnu Music Festival
Mit: PaavoJärvi, Truls Mørk, Hugo Ticciati, Estonian Festival Orchestra u.a.
Pärnu, Tallinn

Friday, February 07, 2020

Igor Levit und Ludwig van Beethoven: Sondersendung zum 250. Geburtstag

Beethoven der Rebell

Sein Vermächtnis: Die 9. Sinfonie
Quelle: Kaupo Kikkas

Als er diese Sinfonie komponiert ist Beethoven schon komplett taub. Die Sopranistin der Uraufführung muss den Komponisten, der sein Werk selbst dirigiert hat und mit dem Rücken zum Publikum steht, herumdrehen, damit er beim Schlussapplaus mit eigenen Augen sehen kann, wie begeistert das Publikum auf die letzte Sinfonie des Meisters reagiert. Die „Ode an die Freude“ hat es zu besonderer Berühmtheit gebracht. Bei Weltgeschichtlichen Anlässen spielt man vor allem diese Melodie – und sie passt in jedes politische Portfolio: Stalin wünschte sich 1936 eine Aufführung der Neunten zur Feier seiner totalitären Verfassung. Furtwängler dirigierte sie 1937 zu Führers Geburtstag. 1949 zierte sie die Gründungsfeiern der DDR. 1972 dann wird sie zur offiziellen Europahymne. Mit dem Dirigenten Paavo Järvi schauen wir ins musikalische Detail und fragen: Wie sehr glaubte Beethoven selbst daran, dass alle Menschen Brüder werden?