Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bringing Schubert and Britten to Vienna

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performs in Vienna, April 6 and it is a safe bet that the Viennese will be impressed. Very impressed, judging from Friday night’s “preview” concert at Music Hall, which included Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. The last time Järvi conducted Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony was with the composer’s hometown band, the Vienna Philharmonic. He took a lot away from that experience, he says. He’s going to give it back now – and then some -- but it won’t just be the product of his work with the proprietary orchestra. As he has done with his cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Järvi has given it his own stamp. Schubert’s “heavenly length” (Robert Schumann’s assessment) has never seemed so short or, for this listener, so heavenly. Joining the CSO Friday, as she will on the CSO’s European tour (April 4-18), was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen in Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Violin Concerto. Järvi opened with a complementary work, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1977 “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” (Part wrote it the year after Britten died, having deeply respected but never been able to meet him.) One of the first works in Pärt’s popular “tintinnabuli” (bell-like) style, it remains a favorite. It opened almost imperceptibly, as clouds of strings descended in layers to full volume against a repeated note on tubular bell. Järvi let the bell tone decay fully before dropping his arms to signal applause at the end. Jansen, 30, an emerging superstar, made her U.S. debut with Järvi and the CSO in November, 2005 in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The choice of Britten’s Concerto for the upcoming tour was an excellent one, since the work is just coming into its own and has not become hackneyed by over-performance. Besides that, Jansen simply plays it splendidly. Statuesque in black lace and spike heels, she spun a gorgeous legato line to open the work, shaping its dynamics curvaceously over a gently tapped, ostinato figure by the timpani. The effect was magical when Jansen took over the accompanimental role herself, alternating the vaguely Spanish ostinato rhythm with guitar-like pizzicato chords over the soft melody in the CSO strings. Her passage into the rollicking Vivace was like the spin of a top (compare the second movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1). It’s a delightful movement (Jascha Heifetz supposedly considered Britten’s Concerto unplayable) with lots of bustle, whistling harmonics and effects like high, twittering sixteenth notes echoed by a pair of piccolos. Jansen handled the cadenza – a daunting one with fingered harmonics in double stops, left hand pizzicato and much leaping up and down the fiddle – with arresting ease. The sober finale, a passacaglia (variations on a theme first heard in the trombones), carried the work’s emotional weight, the violin growing almost agonizing in its intensity before fading out at last on an unresolved trill. In a spectacular rapid passage high on the violin’s highest (E) string, Jansen allied pinpoint accuracy with pure tonal beauty. Järvi and the CSO matched her eloquence and expressivity from the first brushed cymbal to the last dying chord. The Schubert symphony, last heard at the CSO in 2005 under a guest conductor, sounded transformed under Järvi’s baton. Tempos were brisk and dance-like, even the opening Andante which led into a very crisp Allegro. Pacing and detail were exquisite, Järvi giving the thrice-repeated refrain that closes the exposition successively higher dynamic gradation, shaping the passage with sweeping gestures of his own. Principal oboist Dwight Parry shone in the perky melody that opened the Andante. Its march-like mien led into one of those to-die-for melodies characteristic of Schubert. The “dissonant” buildup that followed was galvanizingly intense, making the soft pizzicato chords and lilting cello theme that ensued that much softer by comparison. Järvi pumped a bit of the waltz into the Scherzo (even giving the third beat a little hesitation at one point). He prepared the Trio (another of those drop-dead melodies) with precision and emphasis. There were delicious details everywhere, such as the tiny double bass crescendo leading into the repeat of the Trio theme. The finale (Allegro Vivace) opened with a concerted shout to the heavens. The strings’ insistent triplet figures set up a churning energy suggestive of a locomotive rounding the bend, passing out of sight, then returning again. For his Ninth Symphony, Schubert borrowed from Beethoven’s Ninth, with a quotation from the “Ode to Joy” as the finale’s contrasting theme. Järvi showed no mercy on the strings in their scurrying arpeggio passages leading to the majestic conclusion. The obviously pleased crowd (and the CSO) gave Järvi a solo bow and he led the orchestra in one of his trademark encores (bound to get lots of mileage on the tour), a very schmaltzy Hungarian Dance No. 2 by Brahms. As Friday’s concert demonstrated once again, the CSO works hand-in-glove with Järvi and their level of accomplishment has grown very deep and very natural. His ability to summon nuances, lines and colors from his ninety-some players and shape them into a distinctive, unified voice is what a great musical relationship is made of. Cincinnati has one in Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. March 15 and 3 p.m. March 16 at Music Hall.

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