Dynamic Dvořák from Joshua Bell at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Dvořák, Beethoven: Joshua Bell (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.5.2022. (CS)

Joshua Bell and Paavo Järvi, in rehearsal

Sibelius – Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.105
Dvořák – Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Beethoven – Symphony No.8 in F major, Op.93

The Royal Festival Hall was full to the rafters for this concert by Joshua Bell and the Philharmonia Orchestra – Bell’s first appearance with the orchestra for ten years.  During that decade, the American violinist has regularly performed in the UK and internationally with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, of which he became Music Director in 2011 and which he leads and directs from the front.  So, I was interested to see that he performed Antonin Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with the ASMF in Boston in March this year, for there were times here – as Bell leaned in towards the Philharmonia musicians, made eye-contact with the woodwind soloists, leader Zsolt-Tihamér and conductor Paavo Järvi, and communicated with the whole ensemble through the sheer physical presence of his playing – that he seemed to be very clearly the one with his hand on the tiller.

In a sense, that’s how it should be.  In any case, Bell’s conception of the Concerto was certainly fresh in Järvi’s mind given that the two musicians had performed it together twice last week with the Orchestre De Paris in the Grande salle Pierre Boulez at the Philharmonie.  In their opening orchestral ‘stamp’, the Philharmonia certainly matched the dynamism and heft that Bell brought to the Allegro ma non troppo, initiating the soloist’s sumptuous initial theme which surges from rich melody to rhapsodic flights.  Bell’s beautifully full, honeyed tone shone against the quiet woodwind, and the up-bow E-string peaks glistened with astonishing power, like flashes of sunlight.  Throughout the Concerto his Huberman Stradivarius was imperious, strong and true.

Bell has explained that he came to the Dvořák quite late but now considers it a masterpiece, equal to the composer’s more celebrated Cello Concerto and other late Romantic concertos by Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  It’s certainly no easy play: the countless, often unforgiving, octave passages, the frequent double-stopped melodies and dances, the technically demanding episodes that can sound rather ‘effortful’ – all demand great virtuosity.  And, then there’s the challenge of integrating the more obviously Romantic aspects of the writing for violin with the Slavic elements.  Needless to say, Bell was characteristically assured, and though he did have a low music stand before him, serving as a prompt, it was not one that seemed to be required very frequently.

The first movement blended vigorous Slavic flair with easeful melodising, though Bell wasn’t self-indulgent in the espressivo return of the opening theme, and kept pushing forwards, even through the floaty E-string patterns and towards the playful ornaments of the scherzando development, which danced as if seduced by its own eloquence.  The transition into the Andante isn’t an easy one to negotiate, but Bell imposed a calming focus, the lovely simplicity of the G-string theme holding one’s attention, somehow both supremely crafted and extemporaneous.  Perhaps a little more spaciousness might have allowed those elaborate decorative string-crossings more room to breathe, and the woodwind playing seemed a little ‘smudged’ at times, but there was a serene flow that was comforting, and the Philharmonia horns brought the movement to a close with cushiony sweetness.

The Allegro giocoso ma non troppo whipped along exuberantly, the furiant’s sprung rhythms skipping with light brilliance.  I wondered why the Philharmonia fiddles did not match Bell’s elfin up-bow strokes when the tutti got to enjoy the theme, since the latter would then have had more air in its step, and more ‘innocence’; and, the shift into the dumka, from triple to duple time, wasn’t entirely clean.  But, the basses were spot on with their tricky off-beat quavers when the Bohemian high spirits returned, and the excitement-thermometer rose towards the climactic ending which was greeted with enthusiastic warmth by the Festival Hall audience, many of whom leapt to their feet.  If they hoped for an encore, then they were denied.  And, Bell had certainly worked hard enough and given sufficient joy for one evening.

The other works in the programme were both symphonies, Sibelius’s Seventh and Beethoven’s Eighth.  Presumably the aim was to bring together two of the great symphonic form ‘experimenters’ (I was put in mind of Lionel Pike’s 1978 study, Beethoven, Sibelius and the ‘Profound Logic’), but, if so, then perhaps Sibelius’s single-movement work ought to have followed Beethoven’s symphony rather than open the programme?  (In Paris, Dvořák’s Concerto had the first half to itself, and Sibelius preceded Beethoven post-interval.)  The Seventh Symphony is a work which so feels a ‘culmination’, inevitable and conclusive – after all, that promised Eighth never did materialise.

The Adagio started promisingly, the enlarged strings’ rising steps countered by the subsequent series of falling suspensions, invigored by generative circling motifs in the woodwind and lucid textures.  There was a sense of measured breaths and motifs gathering and growing.  But, I felt that this organic quality was not sustained.  When the trombone theme that binds the work and provides its architectural frame is first heard, it should feel as if it is emerging from within the music, but here – though it was cleanly and sonorously played (a little too prominent at this point, perhaps?) – it felt ‘imposed upon’ the divided strings and the quiet motivic explorations in the horns and wind.

I didn’t find the accelerando into the scherzo-like episode entirely persuasive, nor the dance light enough on its feet.  In fact, Järvi struggled to shape all those wonderful, radical transitions – where time is both telescoped and made to stand still – that Sibelius effects; here they felt cumbersome, dampening the energy and excitement of the symphony.  The seemingly insignificant accompaniment figures should act as a compelling driving force, but I missed that sense of anticipation as first the horns and then the timpani placed quiet pedals and trills, preparing for the second statement of the trombone theme; and, then, after the restlessness of the rhythmic and temporal disruptions, there was no sense of the return of the rational order with the final climactic statement – even if that return always feels a little strained and not quite satisfyingly conclusive.  And, in the Affettuoso coda, more space for the flute and bassoon solos needs to be carved above the strings’ expanding tremolos.  Overall, what should be revelatory was mundane.

Conducting from memory, Järvi seemed more ‘inside’ Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony but what he saw in this work was far from my own conception.  This was a reading of furious tempi, exaggerated dynamic contrasts, muscularity juxtaposed with mercurial wispiness.  If I missed the ‘logic’ of Sibelius’s Seventh, here the music seemed constantly to be trying to disrupt its own rationality.  At one point in the Allegro vivace e con brio Järvi swivelled his head over his right shoulder and raised an arched eyebrow.  Were we being invited into a joke?

Perhaps I need more of a sense of humour … though even I could appreciate that there was wit in this reading.  In the Allegretto scherzando, movement and stasis were skilfully balanced and there was real animation in the strings’ pizzicatos.  The Tempo di menuetto followed virtually segue, adding to the impression of breakneck zaniness, but there was a nice lilt and some lovely horn playing in the Trio, while the lucid textures let the double bass pizzicato and supple cello string-crossings make their mark with ease.  The Allegro vivace was less ‘Beethoven the radical’ than ‘Beethoven the madman’, an impression deepened by Järvi’s constantly changing baton gestures and sudden lurches from deep knee bends to absolute stillness.  At the close I was astounded, breathless and somewhat bewildered.  Perhaps that was the intention.

Claire Seymour

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