A German word perfectly fitted the mood in the hall: “aufgeregt.” Best translated as “excited”, it typified the sell-out crowd at the Tonhalle Maag that eagerly awaited this Estonian Festival Orchestra concert, not least because its fine conductor, Paavo Järvi, will be assuming his post as chief conductor of the Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra in 2019. This concert marked the first time many regular local concert-goers had heard him live. Further, this year marks the centenary of Estonia as a nation, and the conductor had chosen select 20th-century gems by northern moderns to perform: Arvo Pärt, Jean Sibelius and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was a tribute to a composer whom Pärt greatly admired but never actually met. A haunting bell strikes three times at its start. Subsequently, each instrument plays the same melody in a variable musical setting and descending A-minor scale, each progressively slower. This makes for a sort of spiralling effect, the voices making the warp and weft of a rich audio weave, the second voice wandering over the other pitches, which Pärt himself explained was “like the external dualisms of body and spirit, earth and heaven, a twofold, single entity”. The players – drawn from all over the world for the orchestra Järvi himself founded – showed themselves perfectly aligned to the score under his poised and tight direction.
Next, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, written in 1904, featured violinist Viktoria Mullova. In her almost gypsy jazz-like solo at the start, Mullova looked somewhat fragile against the resonant, full body of the orchestra that would support her. She sometimes pushed the tempi, threatening to leave the larger body behind. Yet the dynamic she brought to the concerto was downright stellar; in the third movement, in particular, she brought the crisp folkloristic melodies beautifully to the fore, later striking lightning as she released a hugely demanding catalogue of notes. By contrast, her sequences sul ponticello – where the bow, drawn very close to the instrument’s bridge, conjures up an eerie, otherworldly sound – made a real shiver go down my back. And as for his part, Järvi used gestures that were remarkably economical, given the complexity of the piece. There was no exaggerated drama; he moved his superb ensemble over the score as smoothly if all were sliding on ice.
After the interval, Pärt’s Fratres (1977/1991) began in total silence, Järvi standing firmly on the podium as if overlooking a monumental landscape. The slow rise of regular intervals, the engagement of stirring tympanum, sharp wood block and bass continuo had the music cradling the audience as the piece gained momentum. Composed in the so-called “tintinnabular” modus, a method which Pärt himself described as “working with little material, one voice, (that) builds with the most elementary material”, we hear him reveling in the inspiration that came from his study of medieval and Renaissance genres. But this popular, elegiac piece underscores a musical statement that is as soothing as it is timeless.
By stark contrast, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony gave the orchestra a chance to ignite real explosives, especially in the final movement. Several times, Järvi shimmied head-to-toe to shake up the players, whose bassoon, horn, flute, clarinet and oboe shone particularly. The clarity and resonance of the first movement was striking: the flutes posed a kind of a silvery question to which the others players had to respond. The second movement began with a jolly clarinet and turned over to the quick rush of strings, a shift underscored by the belly-laughs of the robust bassoon. The last movement brought up images: here was a gruff, strident profile contrasted with the elegant dash and seeming ease of a dance by Fred Astaire. That said, if, Järvi can continue this same magic with the exceptional Tonhalle Orchestra come 2019, and no doubt he will, then the years ahead in the Zurich Tonhalle will be worth their weight in gold.