Concert Lacks Drama with Rapport Lacking Between Soloist and Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Nielsen: Victoria Mullova (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Paavo Jaarvi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.11.2014 (GD)

Haydn  Symphony No. 82 in C major, Hob. 1:82 The Bear
Beethoven  Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Carl Nielsen Symphony No 1 in G minor, Op.7

Jaarvi deployed a large orchestra for the Haydn symphony. The only concession he seemed to make to ‘period’ performing practices was to use hard timpani sticks, but, as demonstrated here, they make little effect if not played on period animal skin, hand-tuned kettle-drums, they were thus barely audible. Jarvi skillfully made the contrast between the proud, martial opening flourish, and the more lyrical section. The development, with its variants of D major and C major/minor, was crisp and sharp. But although admirable in terms of contour and energetic phrasing I had the overall impression of a string orientated sound, woodwinds in tutti passages only just audible. I am not a complete advocate of ‘period’ performances in ‘classical’ music, but what a difference the best ‘period players make – where the strings are trenchant but do not dominate, where sharp woodwinds cut through the textures, where ‘period’ timpani are perfectly clear and powerful, the brass too. Here I am thinking of ‘period performers like: Harnoncourt, Bruggen, Adam Fischer, and Thomas Fey, to name just a few.

Although the F major Allegretto was nicely phrased and never dragged, there was a lack of contrast between the different rondo variations; it all chugged along amiably but missed all dramatic sense of thematic/instrumental diversity and play-off, very much to the fore with a conductor like Harnoncourt and his wonderful Concentus Musicus Wien. The Menuet went quite well with a rather played down landler dialogue element. Again in the finale I wanted more from trumpets and timpani. Also the bass drone ( the origin of the symphony’s nickname) was insufficiently light and sustained as a prime thematic device for the whole movement.

I was particularly looking forward to hearing Mullova in the Beethoven Violin Concerto, something of a speciality of hers. Also I have recently heard the recording of the concerto Jarvi made with Janine Jansen with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, in which he proves himself to be a superb accompanist in this concerto with a real rapport between himself and the soloist. Similarly with Mullova I have heard her in excellent form fairly recently with Eliot Gardiner (on CD), and earlier with the late Charles Mackerras. I was not entirely disappointed with tonight’s rendition; apart from some tuning problems just after her initial entry Mullova played well, very well in the finale. But overall I sensed a certain lack of rapport between Mullova and Jarvi. Yes, they were together, but there was little in the way of a real dialogue and curiously Jarvi’s overall conducting wasn’t a match for the recording mentioned above.The first tutti lacked the power and gravitas of an old timer like Klemperer.

Throughout the magisterial first movement Mullova’s playing, apart from the tuning problems mentioned earlier, was never less than distinguished, with a thankful minimum of vibrato. But I still had the impression that she was somehow distracted from possibly the whole event, including the cavernous acoustic of the Festival Hall, as particularly unkind to violinists. In the long development transition from G minor to the D minor solemn tread, punctuated by pp trumpets and timpani – a kind of sustained but trenchant march – leading to the D major tutti climax, I missed not only the mystery but also the sense of incredible diversity within a sustained ‘classical’ structure. It all sounded too reticent, even bland. The cadenzas were unmarked,; were they possibly Mullova’s own? I was surprised both in her recording with Gardiner, and here, that Mullova, who is usually so open to textual coherence and to respecting the composer’s wishes, did not deploy Beethoven’s own, much preferable cadenza either with  solo timpani or with piano and timpani. The timpani here made a marvellous thematic symphonic reference to the work’s opening five pp timpani taps.

The second movement Larghetto and the rondo finale were delivered in a sustained and at times rather bland manner. Although, as mentioned earlier, Mullova got back into form, which certainly encouraged the orchestra, I still had the  sense of little real rapport or dialogue. The re-entry of the strings in the dominant D at the end of the Larghetto lacked the required tonal gravitas, and the G minor episode in the finale lacked contrast and wit. The main rondo theme itself, although generally well played, lacked the rhythmic thrust and buoyancy which distinguishes a good, professional performance from a compelling and inspired musical event.

As an encore Mullova played a beautifully sustained and idiomatic rendition of the opening ‘Adagio’ from Bach’s Sonata No 1 in G minor. BWV 1001

I reviewed a performance of Nielsen’s First Symphony a few weeks ago conducted by Sakari Oramo with the BBC SO, also the initiation of a complete Nielsen Symphony cycle. Although finding Oramo’s performance suitably energetic and lively, overall I found it rather rushed with a tendency to one dimensionality in terms of varying dynamics,  tending also to neglect the reflective, lyrical side of the symphony. Jarvi sounded more confident in the opening Orgoglioso (proudly) with plenty of con moto, while never sounding rushed; the ‘rustic sounding woodwind phrases’, were given more space to breath, so to speak.  Jarvi’s Andante was masterfully sustained, although flexible enough to allow a sense of the ‘pastoral poetry this beautiful music exudes.  The Scherzo had plenty of brio in its strong rhythmic delivery – although Jarvi didn’t always balance Nielsen’s rhythmic/tonal dynamic, G minor crossing over into C major/minor, accurately.  The high spirited finale was similar in its dynamic resolution to Oramo, although considerably better played. And with Jarvi there was more of a sense of expectation in relation to the sunlit coda. In places, throughout, I didn’t always hear those all important inner voices, particularly in the woodwinds and especially in tutti ff passages, where the strings in the higher registers sounded shrill and strident in tone.   But this was no doubt partly due to the dry cavernous acoustic of the Festival Hall. Even a master conductor like Toscanini, when he conducted there in 1952, complained of the dry, opaque acoustic, antithetical to all clarity and ‘light’. And the more recent ‘renovation’ of the hall doesn’t seem to have helped matters!

Geoff Diggines.

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