CSO music director laureate Paavo Järvi makes his first visit back to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 2011. / The Enquirer/ Joseph Fuqua II
But his performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with the orchestra on Thursday night exceeded expectations. Here was a reading that was truly inspired, and stunningly played. The audience barely breathed during its four movements, and erupted in lengthy cheering at the conclusion.
Järvi, who served as music director for 10 years, is now in his third season as head of the Orchestre de Paris. He also leads the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and is a prolific recording artist.
Besides Brahms, which occurred after intermission, Järvi’s program included Schumann’s Overture to “Genoveva” and Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto, with the gifted Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear.
In some ways, the Brahms was like many performances that were heard in Music Hall during Järvi’s tenure – beautifully phrased themes in the strings, sonorous brass, lots of expressive detail and freedom allowed to orchestral soloists. But there was also something about this collaboration that was noticeably effortless and joyful. Tempos were unhurried, and the mood from beginning to end was warm and expansive. Yet there was plenty of inner drive, too, resulting in a magisterial, noble performance.
Leading without a score, the conductor captured this symphony’s radiant pastoral atmosphere, with lightness in the strings and warmly sounding horns. The first movement was broad in scale, yet never lost its serene quality. The bucolic mood continued in the Adagio, a picture of depth, refinement and poetic phrasing.
The sunny third movement led without a pause into the finale, a movement of exuberant beauty. Järvi’s drive to the finish left the brass ringing in the hall.
Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, whose 100th anniversary is being observed this month, wrote his Piano Concerto in 1987-88. His style includes modern harmonies, “chance” techniques, massive orchestral writing and even a section marked “ad libitum” for the pianist, which is not conducted. A brilliant showpiece for piano and large orchestra, its four movements unfold in one unbroken span.
Goodyear, 35, was up to its technical challenges, and played fistfuls of treacherous passages without breaking a sweat. It was clear from the brilliant opening figures, which in the treble register of the keyboard had the effect of birdsong, that he also has an ear for color.
Goodyear’s articulation was incisive and sometimes percussive, but never harsh. The finale included an exciting dialogue with members of the percussion section. Throughout the difficult but engaging work, the orchestra punctuated the pianist’s flourishes and cascading runs with split-second precision.
Schumann’s Overture to “Genoveva,” which opened the program, is a gem of a piece, last performed by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1977 under Sarah Caldwell. Its themes are from Schumann’s only opera, one of Wagnerian proportions. Although the orchestra was tentative at first, Järvi was a dynamic leader through its lyrical melodies, horn calls and magical atmospheres.
The Cincinnati Symphony repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, www.cincinnatisymphony.org.