Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Estonian Festival Orchestra: on a high
David Nice

For me, the players and their inspiring conductor Paavo Järvi always were (on a high), at each of the three festivals in the lovely southern Estonian seaside town of Pärnu I've been privileged to attend: reports on The Arts Desk of 2017 here, 2016 here and 2015 here. But now the rest of the world is getting a chance to catch up. So far it's been Europe, with triumphant visits to Turku, Stockholm, and Copenhagen following last summer's festival, and at the start of Estonian Centenary Year Brussels, Berlin, Vienna and Luxembourg.

Kaupo Kikkas, photographer without peer - and not just in the world of classical music - took the images I'm posting here from the most recent mini-tour, starting on home turf in Tallinn (first photo). As a respected colleague, and a musician himself (clarinettist, I seem to remember), he is well placed to catch the spirit of his friends, that heady mix of Estonians and leading players of great character from other famous orchestras.

The second shot reminds me of how the Lucerne Festival Orchestra players used to react at the emotional ends of their miraculous concerts with Claudio Abbado. I'd place the Paavo effect on a level very close to that - now the great Abbado is no longer with us, and the LFO, though still superb, sounds like many other top orchestras, the EFO experience is the next best thing. Below, the orchestra in Berlin's Philharmonie.

The Pärnu 'family', as part of which I'm honoured to have been included, does have its concerns: will too much touring change the special identity? What happens when (as happened on the recent tour) some key players can't leave their other posts to join their colleagues? Will Paavo and the orchestra be able to resist excess demands from the big agents now in on the act?

In the meantime, the worldwide launch has been ballasted by their first CD together. Quite a few of us put our oar in as to what we'd like to see/hear. For me personally, the best combination would have been a mix: their unforgettable performance of Arvo Pärt's short but significant orchestral-version Swansong, maybe the electrifying Mullova performance in Pärnu of Sibelius's Violin Concerto or the radical characterisation of Strauss's Duett-Concertino by principal clarinet Matt Hunt and Estonian sometime principal bassoon Martin Kuuskmann (though now I have the live performance on file, I realise it would need a patching or two).

Certainly the Shostakovich symphony we have here is the right choice; Nielsen would have done just as well. I personally wasn't so sure it should be all Shostakovich, and though the Stassevich version of the Eighth Quartet shows off the adaptability of the strings to fine effect, I don't much care for the timpani role; Barshai's 'Chamber Symphony' is still best.

No question, though, the Sixth Symphony is the most powerful of calling-cards; I'll never forget the shock of the bass-vivid opening in Pärnu. The booklet is graced by Kaupo's photos, but I also get a spread (thanks, Lucy) with some amateur shots of the beach and town, dramatic cumulo-nimbus clouds doing much of the work. Very honoured indeed to be in such company.

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