Paavo Järvi’s Interesting Way with Schumann

December 11, 2012

AustriaAustria  Schumann: Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Paavo Järvi (conductor). Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 9.12.2012 (MB)

Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61
Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.97

Schumann’s symphonies seem to me to receive something of a raw deal in terms of concert programming. I cannot understand why, for the ignorant criticism they endure is not an explanation in itself; it rather seems to be a manifestation of a deeper problem. Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen have (relatively) recently recorded all four symphonies; they performed them in Vienna over two concerts, of which I caught the second.

I doubt that anything will ever wean me from my preference for a larger orchestra in this repertoire, but there could be no gainsaying the commitment brought by the Bremen orchestra (strings 10.8.6.6.4), nor their ability to execute whatever Järvi asked of them. Sometimes the latter proved more convincing than at other times, the opening Second Symphony proving somewhat mixed, at least to my antediluvian ears. The introduction to the first movement was wondrous, performed with grave Bachian beauty and equally impressive inexorability. What followed was alert, sprightly even, though much of it sounded definitely on a chamber scale. (A fashionable claim at the moment is to say that this music ‘only works’ when performed with the meagre number of strings, fewer than here, that Schumann at one point in his career had to endure.) It was not that Järvi’s reading lacked vehemence, especially during the development and recapitulation, but that the score’s Beethovenian inheritance was to an extent dampened – though others will doubtless retort that this is how Beethoven should be performed too. Balances were at times odd, especially when the brass blared, but again perhaps that is the latest ‘authenticke’ fashion; certainly Järvi’s preference for hard kettledrum sticks is de rigueur in such quarters. Nervous energy was palpable though.

It was in the scherzo that the performance became more problematical. It opened in a lively enough, Mendelssohnian, fashion, very fast. But weightier matters are, or should be, at stake; this is not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first trio was simply too much of a contrast, often very slow indeed, and pulled around in surprisingly arbitrary fashion so as quite to exhaust momentum. The scherzo’s reprises were less airy but mercilessly hard-driven, strings sounding merely thin. However, the second trio was much better; it flowed and its harmony told. The gently melancholic slow movement offered a refreshing contrast with a line notably lacking in its predecessor. A richer orchestral sound would have been a boon, but the chamber scale did little harm and there were fine woodwind solos to enjoy. The finale showed that relative lightness of textures need not necessarily lead to lessening of dramatic tension. Järvi’s reading was fresh, without now falling into the trap of driving too hard. It certainly did not have anything like the profundity of a recent performance by Christoph Eschenbach, but on its own terms it convinced. It felt like a finale, though it would still more have done so had the first two movements sounded as if they had belonged to the same symphony.

The first movement of the Rhenish Symphony opened with fine swagger even before the post-interval applause had subsided. Järvi and the Bremen players offered freshness and strength, with welcome clarity, not least between brass parts. Though taken pretty quickly, the music was not harried; it was permitted to relax from time to time. The horns, moreover, sounded gorgeous when heralding the recapitulation – and elsewhere. Again, the second movement was on the fast side, faster than I can recall having heard it, but it also worked on its own terms; to be fair, it stands in place of a scherzo. It had a splendid sense of swing to it, and again proved capable of relaxation. I could not help but think of German woodland in the third movement: a good sign. It proved very much a woodwind-led movement, which has its advantages and disadvantages, but again the part-writing was presented with commendable clarity. This may have been a small orchestra but the ‘Cologne Cathedral’ movement achieved majesty nonetheless. There was an estimable sense of cumulative power and line was maintained throughout. Sadly, the finale proved something of an anti-climax, sometimes hard-driven, sometimes veering dangerously close to the glibly inconsequential. There was some unduly fussy moulding of phrases too. ‘Excitement’, it seemed, was being valued over substance. A pity – but at least the memory of its predecessor was not entirely effaced.

 

Mark Berry

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