Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bartok and Ravel, Ohio Style

Published: February 16, 2010

Conductors like to think that when they direct an orchestra, it takes on a sound that reflects their own musical personalities, and for better or worse, most get their wishes. Paavo Jarvi has directed the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 2001, and what he appears to have sought above all else is flexibility and efficiency.

You can hear those qualities in the 16 finely polished recordings he has made with the ensemble for Telarc, and they were evident in Mr. Jarvi’s performance with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening.

The ensemble’s sound was so flexible, in fact, that it almost seemed as if Mr. Jarvi had brought two orchestras: one to produce gentle, pastel coloration in works by Ravel and Bartok, in the first half of the program, and a second to give brawnier, more outgoing accounts of Bach (by way of Webern) and Lutoslawski after the intermission.

If there was a unifying quality, it was an unusual reserve: everything was properly in place, and you could not fault Mr. Jarvi or his players on purely technical grounds. But you wished they would let their hair down now and then and risk sacrificing refinement for the sake of vigor.

Mr. Jarvi opened his program with Ravel’s “Ma Mère L’Oye” Suite, a set of five graceful impressions of Mother Goose stories. You don’t hear this suite often, but in a fluke of scheduling, David Robertson is conducting it with the New York Philharmonic next week.

Ravel’s score is subtle but evocative: you hear bird sounds (as often in the strings as in the woodwinds) and the allure of the forest in “Tom Thumb,” as well as the exoticism (in the pitched percussion) of “The Empress of the Pagodas” and the magic of “The Enchanted Garden” (in the sparkling succession of string, woodwind and percussion timbres), all cast in muted colors.

The nuanced, unified sound that Mr. Jarvi drew from his players suited the Ravel, and you could argue that it supported the more meditative aspects of Bartok’s Concerto No. 3 as well. This work, after all, was composed at the end of Bartok’s life and trades in the electricity and overt virtuosity of its two predecessors for a more temperate, often philosophical approach. The pianist Radu Lupu seemed to be on the same page as Mr. Jarvi here: his performance, though beautifully shaped, was unusually restrained.

The concert came to life in the Ricercare No. 2 from Bach’s “Musical Offering,” heard in the quirky, inviting Webern orchestration, in which single lines morph continuously, starting, for example, in the strings, melting into a wind passage and ending up in the brasses.

The orchestra moved through these transformations with admirable precision and was equally impressive when asked to create similar effects on the larger and more vividly detailed canvas of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Yet even in this work’s brassy, outgoing finale, Mr. Jarvi and company seemed to be holding something back, offering politeness when the music craved a ruder edge.