Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia End their Nielsen Cycle in Style


Haydn, Beethoven, Nielsen:  Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Tanja Tetzlaff (cello), Lars Vogt (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2. 2. 2017. (RB)

Haydn – Symphony No.101 in D ‘The Clock’

Beethoven – Concerto for Violin Cello and Piano in C major Op 56

Nielsen – Symphony No.6 ‘Sinfonia semplice’

Paavo Järvi is a leading advocate of Carl Nielsen’s music having recorded all of the symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra (review).  This was the last in a series of concerts with the Philharmonia featuring all six of the Nielsen symphonies juxtaposed with works by Haydn.

The concert got off to an excellent start with a brisk, no-nonsense account of Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony which was written in 1794 for the composer’s second trip to London.  Järvi used period brass and timpani and the first and second violins were seated antiphonal style with the lower strings in the middle.  He created a well- blended sound in the opening Adagio and the tempo was well judged.  The ensuing Presto had enormous drive and momentum – this was a proper Presto rather than an Allegro – while Järvi scrupulously observed the composer’s dynamic markings and phrasing.  Robin O’Neill on bassoon and Kristan Swain on the flute did a superb job creating the metronomic ticking of Haydn’s clock in the Andante second movement.  The tempo was relatively brisk while the music had charm and elegance and I loved Järvi’s robust, emotionally charged handling of the G minor central section.  The long Menuetto had breadth and sway and the phrases were nicely tapered while the rustic trio was a little slower and had a pleasing sense of intimacy.  The exchanges were tightly coordinated in the sprightly finale and Järvi observed the composer’s accents and dynamic markings.  The fugal section was well executed by the strings who did well to observe Haydn’s soft dynamic markings while maintaining the momentum of the music although I wondered if the pianissimo section could have been even softer. All in all this was a first rate performance and a great way to start the concert.

A trio of German soloists joined the fray for the Beethoven Triple Concerto which the composer wrote in 1803 for his royal pupil, the Archduke Rudolf of Austria.  Rudolf was a competent pianist but not a virtuoso so the piano part is relatively straightforward while the string parts are more elaborate.  The orchestral exposition was stirring and heroic with the Philharmonia giving us an array of rich orchestral sonorities.  I was very impressed with the lyricism which the string players brought to the work and the close rapport between all three soloists.  The balance of sound was perfect throughout with each of the soloists giving way to the other as appropriate and I enjoyed the cultivated way in which phrases were passed between them.  In some of the louder sections Vogt’s tone sounded a little hard and forced but this is a minor niggle in what was a first rate performance.  The Philharmonia’s strings brought warmth and intimacy to the Largo second movement before Tanja Tetzlaff entered with a highly expressive, heartfelt melody.  Vogt played the meandering piano figurations with enormous sensitivity while Christian Tetzlaff and his sister sustained the melodic line beautifully.  In the polonaise finale I particularly enjoyed the boisterous sense of gusto which Christian Tetzlaff brought to the dance rhythms.  The dizzying scales were passed between the soloists in a seamless way and the Tetzlaff siblings combined to produce some highly imaginative textures.  Orchestra and all three soloists joined forces to great effect in the exciting coda to drive this sterling performance to its conclusion.

Carl Nielsen’s ‘Sinfonia semplice’ is a highly unusual and original work which defies all attempts at categorisation.  It was written in 1925 and the composer commented on it as follows:  “In this work I strove for the greatest possible simplicity.  I’ve composed on the basis of the character of the instruments and have tried to depict them as independent individuals.”  The work has echoes of Ives, Stravinsky and Shostakovich but the symphonic language is unique to Nielsen and there is nothing else quite like it.  Nielsen was suffering from angina when he wrote the work and this, together with the strains on his marriage, clearly had a significant impact on the composer’s mood.

It was clear from this performance that Järvi had studied the ‘Sinfonia semplice’ very closely.  The opening Tempo giusto was amiable and chugged along nicely although before long ominous undertones and jagged, slashing phrases threatened to undermine the equilibrium.  The Philharmonia’s strings and woodwind brought an admirable clarity to Nielsen’s fugal writing, keeping the lines clean and the voicing clear.  Järvi ratcheted up the tension very well and succeeded in bringing out the terrifying elemental power of the work at the climax points.  The Humoureske second movement is scored for wind and percussion only and the opening atomised fragments were accurately played with Järvi keeping a tight grip on the tempo.  Nielsen’s grotesque gallery of characters was brought winningly to life with each of the instruments vying for attention.  Michael Buchanan on the trombone seemed to sneer at the woodwind (perhaps a reflection of the composer’s disdain for contemporary musical fashions).  We moved from froth and tinsel to dramatic and plaintive melodies on the strings in the Largo third movement.  This performance was dramatic and unrelenting with Järvi maintaining the tension throughout.  Robin O’Neill did a splendid job with the bassoon melody which opens the finale (a set of variations).  There were some striking contrasts presented in the course of this movement which came to a head in the glittering waltz variation where dignified strings battled against disruptive interjections from the brass.  In the subsequent elegiac variation Järvi captured the composer’s sense of resignation and anguish.  This made the final variation all the more startling as Nielsen seemed to thumb his nose at adversity – Järvi turned to the audience just before we heard the final raspberry on the bassoons.

We were treated to outstanding playing throughout this concert and particularly in the Nielsen.

Robert Beattie                

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