London Symphony Orchestra in Cardiff

Nielsen, Sibelius, Grieg: London Symphony Orchestra, Kristian Järvi (conductor), Ramon Simovic (violin), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 8.4. 2011. (NHR)


Nielsen, Aladdin Suite, op. 34

Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47

Grieg, arr. Järvi, Peer Gynt Suite, op. 23


Kristjan Järvi had barely mounted the podium when he lit the touchpaper for the rumbustious opening of Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite. I’m not sure whether the Cardiff audience was quite used to such a high-octane conducting style, with its sways, kicks, sinuous hip-shimmies, and every so often some little coaxing, beseeching gestures in the direction of the lead cello – the kind Italian footballers make to the referee when the whistle doesn’t blow in their favour. It worked a treat. The orchestra only played three movements from Aladdin, but effortlessly caught the varying moods, from festive-colloquial to dreamy-reflective, enabling so truncated a version to make nonetheless good musical sense – perhaps better sense than the full work.

It was a shame Julia Fischer had to withdraw at short notice from the Sibelius concerto. It was a happy accident, however, in letting us see and hear instead the Montenegrin violinist Ramon Simovic. Bearing a striking resemblance to the young Bryn Terfel, he cut a commanding figure in this most challenging of concertos, where the soloist must be as completely exposed as anywhere in the repertoire. Being pitchforked in at the last minute didn’t bother him in the least. The hushed lyricism of his opening bars gradually crested into authority, and at moments his playing had a winning combination of strength and mellowness. I think this must have been a much more convincing performance than the one Bob Briggs was disappointed by the other day. I felt that Simovic’s sheer presence on the stage, and the kind of space the orchestra seemed willing to give him, really helped to bring out the fascinatingly spare, primitive element in this music, so much of it organised around a low, persistent drone, embellished and challenged by soaring and plunging lines, ruminative, subtle, melancholy, heroic. I don’t think that all performers, however technically accomplished, can quite manage this degree of inwardness with the conception. We’re always reminded that Tovey (or was it Beecham?) described the finale as “a polar bears’ polonaise”, and Simovic had all the appearance of a shambling bear himself, so immersed was he in what was happening that in his rest passages he seemed to be trying to conduct the orchestra as well, making sudden gruff, monitory shakes of the back of his head and shoulders, and towering over Järvi, who showed here that he could work with discretion as well as showmanship. For me, at least, this was an unlooked-for and thrilling encounter with this great work.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, in Järvi’s own arrangement, gave the conductor’s extrovert personality plenty of opportunities, all taken with aplomb. The complete music Grieg wrote for Ibsen’s play contains more than twenty numbers, but most performances omit some of these; here we had fifteen. It was not everything then, but as with the Nielsen, a selection carefully and shrewdly designed to give a satisfying arch to the sequence. The LSO’s violins have a delicacy, almost a reserve about them, which led to some momentary imbalances when the fortissimos elsewhere were almost overwhelming, but there was ample compensation in the quieter string passages, where Järvi drew a lovely sheen over the sound. There was excellent wind playing also. St David’s Hall was less than half full, but I’m sure those who came were glad they had.

Neil Reeve