Thursday, February 27, 2020

Parvo Järvi, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall
Marc Bridle

Does an orchestra have to be centuries old for its sound to be unique and definable? In many cases the answer is yes, but there are rare instances of twentieth century orchestras which have become recognisable for their sound – the Philharmonia for their woodwind, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks for that extraordinary blend of mellowness – and the NHKSO for the monumental richness of their strings. There is a particular quality to Japanese string playing, and no orchestra represents it better than this one.
Of the two symphonies the NHKSO are playing on their current European tour it is probably the Bruckner Seventh, which they played at their first concert in Estonia, which would have better impressed on us the sheer range of their strings. But it was evident in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, and ample enough in Rachmaninoff’s sweepingly romantic E minor symphony. Indeed, there was absolutely nothing understated about that performance: It may not have been overly lush, but it was heavy on dramatic impact and it seared in a way which is unusual in performances of this work. Robert Simpson’s 1967 assessment of this symphony as a work which “lapses into facile sentiment… collapses under its own weight… and drifts towards inflation” couldn’t have seemed more inappropriate, harsh or outdated as viewed through the prism of Parvo Järvi and his players.
Järvi is not a conductor who tends to hang fire in much of what he conducts; indeed, his tendency for dynamic tempos can benefit certain composers (Bartók and Shostakovich) but it can sometimes work against others (Richard Strauss and Mahler). In Rachmaninoff he is at the extreme end of the spectrum, especially when compared to two other live recordings the NHKSO made with other conductors, Yevgeny Svetlanov and André Previn. Svetlanov’s performance from September 2000 is the slowest, with an Adagio which stretches beyond 17 minutes; Previn’s, from September 2007, is typically mainstream for this conductor. There is a consensus that this Previn is his finest interpretation of the work; there is also a consensus the clarinet solo in the Adagio is particularly weak, an indication of some of this orchestra’s weaknesses. Järvi’s soloist, the hugely expressive Kei Ito, gave a performance as fine as any I have heard, an indication this orchestra can be a chameleon when it wants to.
You never quite know with a performance of this symphony where a conductor is quite going with it during its opening 20 bars – will it be Rachmaninoff, or will it be more like Tchaikovsky’s Fifth? The opening motto on cellos and basses suggested the former, while the echo of the theme on first violins followed in quick succession on the second violins – an echo that was achieved here by antiphonal strings – confirmed this impression. It was only Järvi’s treatment of this movement’s climaxes which somewhat muddied the waters – the first suggestion of the Dies Irae on clarinets and violas, the rampant timpani, the stripping away of romanticism in the violins, woodwind and horns slipping into brutality. This wasn’t a notably balanced view of the first movement by the end of it.
The Allegro molto – perhaps not taken at that tempo – was riotous. If the virtuosity and precision of this orchestra is a given, in the past it has sometimes leant towards being mechanical and perfunctory. That is not the case today; this is a body of players who tends to exhibit an involvement with the music, and it was notable during this performance how often they swayed gently and moved with their conductor’s beat. But this was playing which often sounded robust and muscular – those massively powerful trumpets and trombones, the chasmic basses, the yawning clarinet, and yet how sudden the orchestra could plummet into the one bar of complete silence which is unique to this movement. If the Allegro molto sometimes veers towards moments of dialogue between its instruments this was not entirely convincingly done here. But there were sections – the fugue, the coda – which pressed the lyrical side of the music.
The Adagio – very slightly more measured than it had been in the broadcast of their performance at Suntory Hall on the 5th of February – was potent and vigorous rather than inclined towards romanticism. Järvi’s willingness to strip down the intensity of slow movements in some symphonies – a notable feature of his Mahler Sixth – can sometimes make them seem indelicate; indeed, one often wonders if Järvi isn’t looking backwards to a stricter view of romanticism but forwards to a leaner kind you find in works, for example, by Bartók. The clarinet solo here was undeniably beautiful, but it was a moment of lone expression, a voice sealed inside a chorus of strings which were stripped of all sentimentality. Clarinet and oboe solos, and the duet with the cor anglais, mirrored that long first solo, but how Järvi drove the climax, the pause at its close almost toppling into the beginning of the development. If there had been a particular vision here it was in striking a contrast between this movement’s ecstasy and its crests. Some conductors certainly make this music sound excessively rich; Järvi is not one of those, and this performance of the Adagio had a freshness of expression.
The beginning of the Finale felt more like Tchaikovsky than perhaps any of the previous ones had done; and the rest of it never really deviated from that. The thrust of this movement – an Allegro vivace – often felt it was bulldozing towards inevitability. The timpani which sounded as if it were on a parade, ascending triplets shooting like gunfire, hammering trumpets and drumming horns, cellos descending into the grave, pizzicato octaves on violins and violas that were explosive – all were symptomatic of an orchestra that would eventually be sucked into a vortex. And it was never less than stunningly virtuosic.
I think Järvi ripped much of the richness and glow from this Rachmaninoff and what we were left with was a diametric view of a symphony which was leaner on its romanticism and more inclined towards drama. This wasn’t a view of the work which addressed the symphony’s conventional opulence; nor was it one which saw it dripping in pigments and tints. It was undeniably high on drama, and a view of it which was convincing only if one could open one’s ears to the strikingly different impact we got.

Sol Gabetta, Parvo Järvi. photo : Belinda Lawley
Schumann’s Cello Concerto is in some ways an enigmatic work. It eschews both a conventional structure – although its three movements are distinct, they are played without a break between them – and it lacks the virtuosity of many cello concertos written during the same period of its composition. In another sense, it might not necessarily be a piece one would wish to play with an orchestra quite as powerful as the NHKSO.
What the work has in common with some of Schumann’s symphonies is a lyricism which is suggestive of lieder. The development section of the first movement is a substantial dialogue between the orchestra and soloist; the slow movement can sometimes appear in its poetic inspiration like a series of disconnected phrases; and there is even the hint of a duet with the soloist and principal cellist. Sol Gabetta showed considerable skill in navigating much of the concerto’s challenges. There was a femininity to her playing, a vocalisation to her fingering which understood the work’s inner voices. In her duet with the NHKSO’s cellist, Ryoichi Fujimori, the difference in tonal colour worked well. But there is also a strength and force to Gabetta’s playing which comfortably rose above the orchestra’s brawnier strings; and her meditative, sometimes contemplative interpretation of the work was projected rather than understated. If not an epic performance that relied on power (but then this work hardly needs it), it was one which easily contextualised the concerto’s emotional curves.
The concert had opened with Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind. Based on an Emily Dickinson poem from 1883, it is his only piece for chamber orchestra, and certainly different in style and meaning to another setting of this poem by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov who had written the piece for soprano and string quartet.
It is probably wrong to interpret Takemitsu’s orchestration of the work as being more large scale than one expects it to sound in performance. Its strings (8-6-4-4-2), and the delicacy and restraint of the writing that Takemitsu gives to them, is never going to stretch the tone of the players – not even for a string section as rich as that of the NHKSO. If this often felt more like a Japanese version of Haydn it was because it largely was. The work is grounded on repetition – rather a lot of it – and it is a balancing act for the strings of any orchestra to make the length of the piece not outstay its welcome. The NHK strings had an elasticity of colour, a delicacy of sound, and an ability to shape-shift what came before and what came after. Some of the orchestration might feel a little odd, even perhaps cluttered – the cowbells, the variegation in percussion – a vibraphone and glockenspiel – a harp, a piano and celesta but this is an orchestra which is notable for its clarity and the way it can make textures distinctly separate. That is exactly what we got here under Järvi’s knife-like and precision conscious baton.
The only encore of the concert – unlike the luckier Estonians who had been given two, the other being Sibelius’s Valse Triste – was Heino Eller’s Kodumaine viis. A reminder of Järvi’s roots, that country’s Independence Day and the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s glorious string section it perhaps settled once and for all what makes this orchestra such a special instrument. 

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