VIENNA – Paavo Järvi’s extraordinary performances of Beethoven symphonies with his Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen have taken the world by storm. On Saturday night, I happened to be visiting Vienna, Austria on a personal trip when, by coincidence, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was performing an all-Beethoven evening, part of a two-day Beethoven cycle here, to a sold-out crowd in Vienna’s famed Konzerthaus.
Järvi’s readings of Symphonies No. 3 and 4 with his German band had much the same interpretive spirit as his energized, unparalleled performances of Beethoven with the Cincinnati Symphony in Music Hall. What’s different from hearing his Beethoven live as opposed to on disc – he has recorded all nine symphonies with the Kammerphilharmonie – is the seat-of-your-pants spontaneity that grips the listener from first note to last. But in this concert with his smaller ensemble of about 42 players, there was also the visual impact, for this is an orchestra that doesn’t merely sit and play. The musicians moved and swayed with the music, playing with such fervor and intensity, that their bows often struck wood. You almost expected actual sparks to fly.
But more than that was Järvi’s unique, revolutionary interpretation. As in Cincinnati, his tempos were galvanizing, and every detail burst out of the texture. But in the magnificent acoustical space of the Konzerthaus, the presence of sound was magnified. Accents were explosive, well-shaped themes were underscored with darkness and power, climaxes were heaven-rending and softer moments sounded authentically Viennese.
In this city of music, the Viennese were riveted, hardly breathing through Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, followed by Symphonies Nos. 4 and 3, “Eroica.”
The musicians walked out together, European-style. Their articulation in the Overture bristled with energy, and they communicated as if playing chamber music.In Beethoven’s Fourth, Jarvi’s slow introduction was full of tension, and burst onto the allegro with such impact in the strings that it was like fireworks going off. They played with short strokes, and flung their bows upward, while the clarinets and oboes lifted their bells. For historical effect, the trumpets had no valves – and despite that challenge, played superbly – and the timpanist used hard-tipped mallets.
Järvi’s tempos flew, and he led animatedly, rarely consulting his score. The finale balanced frenzied playing with genial themes that emerged like sunshine.
Beethoven’s “Eroica,” was both electrifying and enlightening. The Funeral March was raw and intensely emotional, as if Beethoven were shaking his fist at heaven,
Järvi’s vision for Beethoven, he said backstage later, “is a combination of growing up with a tradition in his home of listening to all the great recordings, from the German masters to great American orchestras led by George Szell and Fritz Reiner.
“Then, I found that I was very moved and influenced by the whole original instrument movement, started by Roger Norrington, Nicholas Harnoncourt, Gardiner and those people. I found it exciting, transparent, moving and faster and closer to what Beethoven has in the score. Gradually, after doing a lot of performances, you kind of realize there is another layer. The truth lies somewhere in between.
“It is something where you have to sort of trust yourself as well, because you have to be able to hear it, and also have the framework of knowing when not to cross that crucial line and become indulgent.”
A DVD documentary by Deutsche Welle of the making of the Beethoven recordings by Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie is being premiered today at Cincinnati Art Museum by the Cincinnati Film Society.