wed 18/09/2019

Mullova, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH review – clear paths through the forest | reviews, news & interviews

Mullova, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH review – clear paths through the forest

Mullova, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH review – clear paths through the forest

Familiar works refreshed as precision joins passion

No swooning in the 'Pathétique': Paavo JärviKaupo Kikkas

Visit Ainola, Sibelius’s woodland house by Lake Tuusula north of Helsinki, and you’ll be told the story of the green stove. It appears that the famously synaesthetic Finnish composer identified the shade of his heating installation with the key of F major. Asked to attach a colour to the lustrous performance of his D minor violin concerto given last night by Viktoria Mullova and Paavo Järvi with the Philharmonia, I’d plump for a rich autumnal red-brown, glinting with bright golden highlights at the top but grounded in earth tones of a sumptuous depth.

Mullova, of course, has played this piece for decades. She brings to it a masterful assurance – electrifying empathy, yes, but also profound understanding – that never slides into over-familiarity. This work remains, as for all violinists, the most challenging, and mysterious, of friends. From the silvery grace of the adagio to the primeval forest stomp of the finale, the Russian-born, London-based soloist filled the Royal Festival Hall with a spectacular palette of sounds that melded refinement and muscularity. She sounded, and looked, utterly poised even in Sibelius’s hair-raising, spine-tingling stretches of double-stopping, and applied just the right (modest) touches of rubato. 

Järvi, meanwhile, built up his orchestral canvas in rich impasto layers. He slashed luminous streaks of wood and brass across the enveloping, storm-tossed forest of the Philharmonia strings – who, under concert-master Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, sound truly formidable these days. The Estonian maestro thinks big, stitching finely-wrought phrases into broad, coherent musical paragraphs with a wide but never melodramatic range of dynamics. But he can spotlight the instrumental trees as well the orchestral wood, whether the bird-call motifs that cluster around the soloist’s inner voyage in the adagio, or the snort and roar of brass (with the trombones on superb form) that accompanies the finale.

Mullova and Järvi together drove the closing movement into a whirlwind ride, always beautifully controlled and never without a sense of Nordic cool behind the full-throttle interactions of violin and orchestra. Both conductor and soloist inhabit this music with an exhilarating inwardness: a marriage made in a pine-dark, lake-fringed heaven. Mullova (pictured below by Henry Fair) has recently recorded their encore, Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia for violin and orchestra. Her reading – delicately steered by Pärt’s compatriot and champion, Järvi – made the most of its neo-Baroque beat and weave, as Bachian figures entwine around a Shostakovich-like throbbing pulse.

Järvi and the band had made their intentions clear in the opener, Beethoven’s Egmont overture. This became a glittering showcase for separate instrumental colours rather than a uniform Romantic blast, with strongly marked individual voices throughout – up to and very much including Keith Bragg’s piercing, martial piccolo – and a crescendo at the close that rose to majesty without the raucous shout of lesser maestros, and ensembles. The Egmont moves into F Major, although I can’t honestly say that I saw green. Järvi, all the while, found a satisfying graininess, a real crunch and bite, in the Philharmonia string tone. That augured well for the second-half offering: Tchaikovsky’s misnamed Pathétique – properly, “Passionate” – symphony. 

So it proved, in a performance that held back on lush melancholia in favour of a discipline and drive that gave a shape, and point, to these iconic chunks of late-Romantic yearning and suffering. No plush-and-gilt swoons here, in a rendering that reminded us in its balance and attack of the “classical” Tchaikovsky who has recently emerged from under his mask of schmaltz. For a start, Järvi virtually pushed the four movements of the Pathétique together into a single entity – a seamless whole, which almost but not quite pre-empted the moment at the close of the third-act march when someone always applauds before the soul-scorching finale of the adagio lamentoso. His tempi in the inner movements often felt brisk, and the phrasing, while not lacking in amplitude and grandeur when the music demanded, had a snappy tautness that avoided lazy languor. The strings, rightly, were encouraged to show their clenched fists as well as their stroking palms. Around them, the instrumental solos proved the Philharmonia’s strength-in-depth – not just Robin O’Neill’s bassoon in the super-exposed first bars, but Carlos Ferreria’s clarinet, Timothy Walden’s cello and Byron Fulcher’s emphatic trombones (with a grateful nod, again, for Antoine Siguré’s reliably terrific timpani, and Peter Smith’s tuba). 

Järvi injected the middle movements with a freshness, even jauntiness, that belied the work’s hackneyed reputation as the longest suicide note in musical history. The broken waltz, in 5/4, of the adagio felt weirdly danceable. Its sly pace and zest seemed long Russian versts away from the sheer despair of the Pathétique legend – after all, no one thinks that this time signature heralds breakdown when Dave (“Take Five”) Brubeck deploys it. The march, though, did climb nervously towards a manic intensity that Järvi summoned and then unleashed with a fierce exactitude.

And then we dived straight into the final lament. Its great descending arcs of melody unrolled across strings and woods, touching levels of sorrow all the more striking for the relatively upbeat mood that Järvi had spread over his middle acts. Tragedy proper kicked in here, and it kicked hard. Järvi, though, is no sort of sentimentalist. He maintained an alertness and attentiveness to aural detail even as the music tumbled down its scales, across the violins and into the lower strings, coming to exhausted rest in the quiet last gasp of the basses, and the silence of oblivion. A silence rudely broken by over-eager clappers – but then, they had plenty to applaud. 

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