Photo: Ixi Chen
The second of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s subscription programmes of the season was memorable in many ways. Primarily this was for a towering account of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, whose long course from ironic semi-darkness to ambiguous light was charted with complete control by Paavo Järvi. The Staatskapelle’s playing remained supremely refined and unruffled despite everything that Shostakovich threw at them – and through the symphony’s 70-minute span with the composer at his most inventive, acerbic and angry, that amounts to an awful lot.
In fact, Järvi is probably just the sort of conductor you want in this work if it's not to spiral out of control. His platform manner is cool and considered, his beat often undemonstrative. Only in the (ironically) triumphal final minutes did he look as though he might start to break a sweat. His clear, intelligent approach is also particularly suited to the composer’s irony, especially in the first movement’s extended, slightly Boléro-like ‘invasion theme’ march, built up here with po-faced patience.
Against a controlled background, the big moments, such as the grand Mahlerian outburst in the Adagio, registered with especial power. The gradual build-up to the finale’s concluding climax was irresistible, too, while the transparency of the Staatskapelle’s playing helped elucidate the work’s symphonic logic. The solo contributions were outstanding, with principal flute Claudia Stein particularly worthy of a mention, while the corporate string tone at the start of the finale was supremely eloquent. Were the strings perhaps a little too refined on occasion? Perhaps, and this performance could maybe have had more of the Russian grit and bite one hears in the mind’s ear, but it’s difficult to imagine a more musical account of this great symphonic edifice.
Radu Lupu’s playing in the first half hadn’t lacked musicality either, but it presented nothing like as complete a picture of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Järvi and the orchestra had laid firm foundations with an account of the first movement’s orchestral exposition that managed to be both airy and punchy, but then Lupu’s account of the solo part went its own way. There was much to be admired in the spontaneity, the unexpected voicings and the touches of wonderful lyricism. I’ve rarely heard the rippling octaves that bring the first-movement development section to a close sound so dappled, for example, although the arpeggio-accompanied dialogue between flute and bassoon in the Largo risked disappearing into inaudibility at one point.
The muted tone of Lupu’s playing, amplified by the piano apparently having had much of its brilliance and brightness conditioned out of it, could certainly be seductive. But there was also something missing – whether you call it Schwung, elan, or (following the first movement’s tempo indication) brio. The first movement cadenza ambled along rather too amiably, and generally far too much that needed to be robust came across as rather timid.
Technically, too, I’m afraid there were too many rough edges and mumbled passages, especially in the flashier writing of the finale, which I’m not sure the pianist’s innate musicianship and sensitivity were able to mitigate. I hope he was just having an off night, and things might be better at the concert’s repeat at the Konzerthaus.