August 4th 2010, by Tobias Fischer
Picture by Patrick P.L. Lam
In their first of three concerts this year at the Lanaudiere Festival, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen arrives on Canadian soil under a tight schedule. Having just appeared at the PROMS this year, the ensemble embarks on tour to perform their first Schumann Symphony cycle out in this festival, followed by appearances in Lincoln Center. This is the Deutsche Kammperhilharmonie’s third visit at the festival here in Joliette - the most recent, a Beethoven Symphony cycle from three years ago, has left many music lovers and critics alike in attendance glow with fond admiration in their naturally energetic performances. Despite the somewhat cool weather out in the open Fernand-Lindsay Ampitheatre, local and neighbouring visitors travel great distances to witness this ensemble in action.
Under the direction of their Estonian music director Paavo Järvi, they open with one of Schumann’s lesser-heard orchestral works to set the many minds in attendance with the Schumann language. This is a language that is defined by “an excessive, neurotic range of expression,” as commented by members of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The Overture, Scherzo and Finale Op.52, in fact a disguised “Sinfonietta” in structure, is Schumann’s next attempt after his “Spring” Symphony No.1 (Op.38) to pay homage to classical traditions. In this work totalling under twenty-minutes, one can hear some of the idioms and idiosyncrasies towards Schumann’s treatment on melodic lines, which the composer inherits from his precursor, Beethoven. With increasing accolades on their recorded and live performances in the Beethoven Symphonies with Järvi, this meticulous conductor focuses on bringing out some of the attractive instrumental qualities of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie: the full-bodied tone of the three double-basses and five celli from the bed of strings, or the trumpet players who bring out clarity and a golden lustre on their historical instruments. Together, they bring out a slightly lean sound to the work as a whole, but emphasize on the timbre qualities and individualistic elements to each of the instrumental groups. Most impressive out of all three sections is surprisingly the Overture, wherein Järvi’s direction highlights the metric freedom and lyrical character as the music demands. As a result of this concert being set in open-air, some of the passages from the woodwinds and horns in the middle section of the Scherzo do not carry out quite as effectively as one would have hoped.
It is interesting to note that several musical giants in history do not value greatly on the Symphonies written by Schumann. Felix Weingartner, for example, considers Schumann’s symphonies “too moderately orchestrated,” and in his opinion believes Schumann is not skilled to write for the orchestra in general. Another, the great Gustav Mahler, even goes to great lengths to re-orchestrate all four of Schumann’s Symphonies with much denser orchestration. A debate on Schumann’s orchestration technique has conjured much discussion in recent decades and is an active area of academic research. Thus, in keeping with recent Schumann scholarship and revival on historically-informed performances, Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie believe Schumann’s orchestral music nonetheless contain “an excessive, neurotic range of expression,” which can be as electrifying and exert as much vitality as listening to Beethoven Symphonies.
To illustrate this, they choose the two even numbered Symphonies to put this into effect in their first Schumann evening. In the Symphony No.4, Järvi focuses in detail on the tempo and rhythmical relationships from one movement to the next, emphasizing the rhythmic components which he believes underscore a logical continuity in the work. In return, it does not take long for the audience to appreciate that there exists a magical rapport and a special “German sound” in this group of musicians, as evident in the solo and dialogue passages. For example, in the third movement Romanza, the solo from the concertmaster is captured with admirable effect and clarity in definition that befits intelligently with the second musical subject performed by his string colleagues. As the movement draws to a close, one can witness the rewards precision can bring to a performance. One of these is found in the ensemble’s ability to execute a singing line in unison, as they bring the movement to a close like a tender lullaby. Alternatively, in the transition between the Scherzo and the Finale in the last movement, Järvi is able to inject a kind of vitality and athleticism into the energetic theme that complements the lightness and caprice qualities of the previous Scherzo section.
In the Symphony No.2, again it is the slow Adagio expressivo third movement that highlights the musicians' abilities to bring music and language into one, bridge by a constant outpouring of genuine expression. The string section engages themselves into a passionate “song without words”, and despite some earlier hesitations from the previous Symphony, the woodwinds now echo in full range with a beautiful dialogue that is led by the oboes and clarinets. In the workup to the climax of the Allegro molto vivace fourth movement, the oboist takes the spotlight to deliver a simple melody that uses familiar thematic material from the earlier movements. This melody encapsulates elements of joy and victory, as the music works its way up into a climax. At this point, Järvi, himself, cannot resist the build-up of triumphant energy, and some may have noticed he leaps slightly up in the air! In response to this heightened spirit, the trumpets respond with their last appearance with equal grandiose, bringing the work to a full close.
Compared to the acclaimed orchestras of the world, for instance the Amsterdam Concertgebouw or the Chicago Symphony, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie offers no less an engaging musical experience. This is further exemplified in the Allegretto scherzando from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as an encore. All-in-all, there are many “Schumannesque” utterances within the composer’s orchestral scores, hidden like messages waiting to be revealed. It takes the meticulous insights of a conductor, together with confidence and a rapport with his/her musicians, which can make music take flight. The unique combination of Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is one of those rare jewels in today’s concert platform that befits this philosophy, and in consistent with their recorded Beethoven cycle, it is the unity in vision that fosters magic in their music-making.