Järvi Features Neglected Scottish Composer in a Varied Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom McEwen, Beethoven, Sibelius: Christian Blackshaw (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.4.2012 (SRT)

McEwen: Where the Wild Thyme Blows
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1

Neeme Järvi is a semi-regular with the RSNO – he’s their Conductor Laureate – and he’s always welcome when he appears. What’s clear is that the orchestra love playing for him. There is a camaraderie between them that isn’t replicated with many conductors, and the smile ratio among the players is particularly high when he is on the podium. So it proved tonight, with a diverse programme that showed him off at his best.

Beethoven is not a name we often link him with, though, and he delivered a more muscular sound for this composer than we have perhaps become used to recently. I’ve recently been listening to Howard Shelley’s excellent new set of the piano concertos so the contrast struck me especially hard, particularly the beefy string sound, underlined by Järvi’s placing of the violins together on his left rather than antiphonally. The orchestral sound made quite a contrast with Christian Blackshaw’s light-fingered piano playing and the combination didn’t always work, particularly in the first movement. Both sides had found their groove by the time of the frisky finale, however, and the warmth of the string sound suited the Adagio particularly well, creating an almost Brahmsian sonority that still left room for some lovely interaction between soloist and orchestra.

If you’ve never heard of John Blackwood McEwen then you’re in good company. He’s a Scot who was from the same generation as Elgar and Holst and the programme note told us that the 1954 Grove described him as “perhaps the most grievously neglected British composer of his generation.” Hmm, maybe. The title of Where the Wild Thyme Blows might make you think of pastoral pleasantness, but it’s actually a much darker evocation of a moonlit Scottish heath, almost like a film score in its depiction of mood over melody. The music sounded rather static to my ears, the composer sounding more comfortable in the lower half of the orchestra than the top, and the most effective moments came when the cellos and basses combined with the lower brass. It’s interesting enough as a novelty and as a showcase for the darker sonorities of the orchestra, but the concert also featured Sibelius, the master of dark sonorities, and McEwen doesn’t profit from the comparison.

Järvi is a Sibelian of rare distinction and his finest gift here was to weld the often disparate parts of his First Symphony into a convincing whole. Elements that could seem episodic, such as the vigorous strings that gives way to filigree winds in the first movement, here seemed organic and unified. He also mastered each of the component parts and helped the orchestra to inhabit them persuasively, from the jagged rhythms of the first movement and Scherzo, through to the opulent string tone for the Andante and the “big tune” of the finale. The ending, too, was nicely equivocal: is it really a triumph after all? I’ve mentioned before that I often struggle with Sibelius, but if an interpreter like Järvi isn’t going to convince you then I’m not sure what will.

Incidentally, the evening ended uproariously, Järvi surprising us all by adopting his best bandmaster pose and rattling through a March, which I didn’t recognise, but sounded as if it came straight out of Strauss’s Vienna. All thoughts of brooding darkness were forgotten in a flash of light that no one saw coming. What a showman!

Simon Thompson