Life-affirming Nielsen from Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia

Haydn, Beethoven, Nielsen, Martin Helmchen (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 12.4.2014 (RB)

Haydn – Symphony No. 88 in G Hob 1/88
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Op 73 ‘Emperor’
Nielsen – Symphony No. 4 Op 29 The Inextinguishable


Carl Nielsen’s music is featuring prominently in concert programmes across London at the moment.  Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are presenting their own interpretations of all six symphonies at the Barbican while Järvi and the Philharmonia are also performing all of the symphonies at the Southbank Centre.  This concert featured one of the most incendiary works in the Nielsen symphonic canon – The Inextinguishable.  Before the apocalyptic eruptions of the Nielsen, Järvi and the Philharmonia presented us with two contrasting works from the Classical period.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 was written in 1787 immediately after the Paris symphonies and before the London symphonies.  It is one of the composer’s most inventive and highly regarded works and it follows the traditional four-movement Classical format.  The Philharmonia’s strings gave us broad, clean strokes in the Adagio introduction before launching into the ensuing first movement Allegro.  Vibrato was kept to a minimum and there was clearly enormous attention to detail as conductor and orchestra worked through the composer’s tightly argued contrapuntal textures.  Järvi coaxed some very muscular and gutsy playing from the Philharmonia, which I liked and did a wonderful job of bringing out the harmonic surprises and dynamic shifts.  The Largo slow movement is an exquisite set of variations which received a very graceful and beautifully shaped performance here – bravo in particular to the Philharmonia’s principal oboe!  Järvi adopted a nice flowing tempo that seemed spot on to me and was alive to both the nuanced Classical elegance and filigree decoration in the score and the striking dramatic interjections. The droning of the bagpipes was perfectly realised in the third movement trio while Järvi was hopping about on the podium to the rustic foot stomping of the minuet.  The finale was light and effervescent with Järvi and the Philharmonia nicely capturing the ebullient high spirits of the work.

Martin Helmchen joined the assembled forces for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.  I normally like Helmchen’s playing but I was a little disappointed with this performance.  He opened well, capturing the grandeur and majesty of the piece in the initial flourishes while Järvi and the Philharmonia brought a feeling of strength and exhilaration to the subsequent tutti section.  One of the key challenges the soloist faces with this work – one of the most famous in the repertoire – is making the material sound fresh and unhackneyed.  In the first movement, Helmchen’s performance came across as technically competent but slightly jaded, perhaps because of over-exposure to the piece.  There was some very fine playing, particularly in the development section where Helmchen’s rapport with Järvi and the orchestra was exemplary but there were also moments when his playing sounded a little too casual and untidy – a glaring example was the last chord which was held down too long by the pedal.  The slow movement was better and I loved the soft-grained poetic sounds which Helmchen conjured from his Steinway and the way in which he allowed the gorgeous suspended melody to sing.  However, the sequence of ascending trills did not quite have the magic that it should and Helmchen lost the pulse of the music a little and went off too fast in the subsequent section.  He seemed to spark much more in the romping finale, saving his best playing to last.  He gave us some excellent shaping of the line and very fine articulation and at the same time brought out the discrete character of the contrasting episodes.

Following the première of his Fourth Symphony, Carl Nielsen spoke to the newspaper Politiken and is quoted as saying:  “Music is life, and as such inextinguishable”.  In his private correspondence he amplified his thought processes further when he wrote that he was “trying to describe all that has the will and the urge to life, which cannot be kept down”.  The Fourth Symphony was composed while the First World War was raging around Europe and it describes the will to survive and to overcome the dark destructive forces engulfing the continent.  Järvi and the Philharmonia captured the white heat of the opening movement presenting us with an uncontained maelstrom of sound.  Järvi synthesised the composite elements into a seamless organic whole, bringing out the angularity of the writing and feelings of disquiet in the more reflective material.  Nielsen’s sonic and harmonic shocks, rhythmic asymmetries and unusual textural collages were all brought thrillingly to life.

The Philharmonia’s woodwind provided an oasis of calm in the tranquil second movement – the music had a charm and timeless beauty all of its own.  The strings achieved a searing intensity in the opening of the third movement in a very dramatic piece of playing.   Järvi allowed the subsequent fugue to build in a powerful and incremental way and the dramatic conflict at the heart of the piece was brought vividly to life.  The final movement is famous because of the explosive battle between the two sets of timpani on either side of the orchestra and the Philharmonia’s percussionists did not disappoint, giving us explosive fusillades of sound.  The brass gave the final bars of the work a life-affirming grandeur while the  rumbles from the timpani warned us that the threat of war and the descent into barbarism is never far away.

This was great playing from Järvi and the Philharmonia – and it’s good to see these wonderful symphonies by Carl Nielsen receiving so much public exposure.


 Robert Beattie



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