fri 19/07/2024

theartsdesk in Pärnu: Top players, great Estonians | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Pärnu: Top players, great Estonians

theartsdesk in Pärnu: Top players, great Estonians

Utopian music-making led by the Järvi family in Estonia's magical summer town

The 'holy minimalist' smiles: Arvo Pärt (right) with Paavo Järvi after the Parnu Festival Orchestra's performance of 'Swansong'Images by Kaupo Kikkas except for Järvi family photo by Taavi Kull

In 1989 Neeme Järvi, already rated one of the world’s top conductors and soon to be voted “Estonian of the Century” by his compatriots, returned with his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra to the homeland he had left for America nearly a decade earlier. I went with them then, and to experience a free Estonia 26 years later was a bracing surprise.

Under Soviet rule, there had been violence on the streets and Järvi had departed prematurely in secrecy, fearing detention. Now “the little country that could”, as a former Prime Minister has called it, is so relaxed, productive and happy that Putin’s current investigation into the “legality” of the Baltic States’ independence seems doubly ludicrous. The week-long music festival run by Neeme’s elder son Paavo in the idyllic seaside town of Pärnu is a symbol of its country’s highest cultural ties with the best of the rest of Europe.

Estonia has its own unassailable musical traditions. Eating in a Tallinn café before I headed south, I asked our student waitress whether she knew about the Järvis. Of course; as a 15-year-old she’d participated in one of the great five-yearly choral festivals, where groups can be as large as 15,000, and was expecting a “boring rehearsal as usual” when along came Neeme Järvi to charm, amuse and inspire – something she’ll never forget.

Parnu Festival playersA guiding principle of the Pärnu Music Festival since its inception five years ago has been to raise the game of young Estonian musicians. In the congenial atmosphere of this old-fashioned summer retreat (The Schumann Quartet, stunning players participating in the Festival Orchestra, on the beach pictured right), where the likes of David Oistrakh and Shostakovich came for the nearest thing to western tolerance and understanding in the Soviet Union, conservatoire students play in an “Academy”. It serves as a training ground for 15 aspiring conductors from all over the world in short sessions under Neeme and Paavo, as well as Järvi senior’s long-term colleague and Paavo’s first conducting tutor, Ukrainian-born Leonid Grin. Though the training was fascinating to watch, not least how father Järvi came in for a session on his fellow-countryman Eduard Tubin’s hard-hitting Sixth Symphony and rehearsed selective groups with great energy, the orchestra itself was of amazing quality, with a string ensemble equal to the best.

The world-class calibre of the other band, the Pärnu Festival Orchestra, took me by surprise. I knew that top young violinist Ben Baker was playing in it because he’d told me so when I met him on the East Neuk Festival’s Retreat a fortnight earlier. But I wasn’t expecting to see the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill, an East Neuk regular, nor its riveting double-bass player Nikita Naumov, who as Paavo Järvi pointed out is a crucial leader for a crucial underpinning group.

Matthew Hunt and Martin Kuuskmann in Strauss's Duett-ConcertinoAn outstanding festival ensemble working as one became quickly apparent in the first concert I heard in the loveable if not acoustically perfect 1,000-seater concert hall opened, partly on the Järvis’ urging, in 2002. An obvious highlight charmed everyone as principal clarinettist Matthew Hunt of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen played the princess of Richard Strauss’s Duett-Concertino narrative to the bear of Martin Kuuskmann, an equally charismatic Estonian established as a star bassoonist on the international scene (he has played in the Festival Orchestra but wasn’t doing so on this occasion). I’ve long loved this melting specimen of Strauss’s so-called Indian Summer, but never heard it performed as an opera for instrumentalists, with the audacious Hunt coaxing Kuuskmann to vocal feats in the recitative just before the finale (Hunt and Kuuskmann pictured above). Their encore, an apt set of riffs and variations on “Some Day My Prince Will Come” took the improvisatory quality to rare heights.

Hunt was a recipient of the closing party’s backdated “Crazies” award, and it wasn’t hard to see why. This year’s winner was French violinist Marina Chiche, a model of madcap collegiality but not, in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Academy Orchestra, of sweet, full violin tone. When I met him, Paavo Järvi also used the term “crazy” to describe an essential quality of the non-Estonian players in the Festival Orchestra. His idea was to try and loosen up the half-quota of very fine Estonian professional musicians by seating them with experienced foreign counterparts. The leader of the healthy mix, Florian Donderer (pictured below), also of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and a positive presence among the trainee conductors, was the born leader of this healthy mix, commanding but genial and collegial.

Florian DondererThe middle Maestro Järvi himself seemed to have freed up a lot, too. He was a fine conductor from the start, but I’d thought of him as more precise and analytical, and as a result a bit more rigid, than his fabulous father. His younger brother Kristjan has also been making waves on the Baltic with his own orchestra. I bumped into him in a Pärnu craft shop; he recognized me after 26 years – he was 15 on that 1989 visit – and told me he’d cancelled a concert partly to be here with the family. Two of Paavo’s players told me they thought he had the finest stick technique of any conductor they knew; chats with musicians at rehearsals and in the town centre bar after concerts always encouraged affirmations like this, and another principal who wants to remains anonymous said that this was the finest orchestra she’d ever played in. After five years returning musicians now have the intuition and synchronicity to follow his more unpredictable moves, the risks he takes. The result begged comparison with the elasticity of Abbado’s concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which is as good as it can get.

Paavo Järvi’s choice in the first programme I heard was of true festival calibre – starting with the sweep of Smetana’s Sarka from Ma Vlast, so much more impactful by itself, then the Strauss, after the interval Tubin’s accomplished but none too memorable and untypical First Violin Concerto (1942), gamely memorized by another French violinist, Nicolas Dautricourt, and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. This is Paavo’s personal favourite out of a cycle he knows well from his game-changing Deutsche Kammerphlharmonie recordings. It was fast and fleet, and after it he said thoughtfully that he might like to slow up a bit in future if only in order to reveal more of the astonishing detail he keeps on discovering.

After a blissful first full day of walks and rehearsals – the next two were spent in the sea and on the white sandy beach which lies beyond the amiable old town of Pärnu and its green belt – there was another marathon, this time allowing the Festival Orchestra stars to shine as great chamber players. The curiosity value was to hear four more Järvis: now-famous flautist Maarika, third child of Neeme and his vivacious wife Lillja, violinist Miina, viola-player Madis and his cellist father Teet whose own father, Neeme’s older brother Vallo, I had met on my first visit to Estonia (he died in 1994).

Korngold players at the Parnu Music FestivalThere were two obvious highlights. The first was a stupendous Suite, a Piano Quartet in all but name, by a composer who’s never impressed me quite so much as in this piece, Erich Korngold; the reason the superb Sophia Rahman was making such a sound with only one hand meant that this had to have been a commission from Paul Wittgenstein of Ravel Left-Hand Concerto fame. Ben Baker, Sophia’s partner the no less outstanding Estonian violinist/viola-player Andres Kaljuste, and a third British-based force for good, cellist Jonathan Bloxham who also impressed on the conducting course, made unearthly sounds (the quartet pictured above). Supernatural, too, were the glass-harmonica sounds of Naumov in the bel canto-gone-berserk Grand Duo Concertante by the Paganini of the double-bass, Giovanni Bottesini. Having found Naumov so compelling in the SCO, this was a unique chance to hear him go solo, but Sharon Roffman’s violin contribution was also masterly; it was she I’d like to have heard in the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Which was one of the pieces in which the 15 masterclass conductors (Paavo Järvi with Irene Gómez Calado and players of the Järvi Academy, pictured below) were asked to show their abilities the next evening. With each needing a movement, it was clear that the Mozart "Linz" Symphony would need to be repeated.

Paavo Jarvi in conducting masterclassBy then, we'd recognised the star: Ukrainian Oleksandr Poliykov, graced with something of the relaxed, less-is-more manner of Järvi-père as he injected immediate authority and a different sound taking over mid-flight for the finale of the concerto. Also outstanding were South Korean June-Sung Park, managing the swingingly violent central movement of the impressive Tubin Sixth, and Bloxham, cleanly expressive and communicative in its more problematic finale.

Talking it over in the interval of the final concert with Leonid Grin and Neeme Järvi, the latter with his usual enthusiastic emphasis said "ideal concert – Prokofiev Second, Tubin Sixth, Nielsen Sixth" (I’d been complementing Grin on his own superb recording of the Prokofiev). There was no Nielsen at the Festival, but Shostakovich’s Ninth made a dangerous and exhilarating finale for Paavo and the Festival Orchestra. Everything shone in this last blockbuster. Glitzy visitor Khatia Buniatishvili’s extremes were watched like a hawk by her orchestra and conductor in a fascinating Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, Järvi giving a miraculous downbeat at the unpredictable end of one of her crazy cadenzas.

Jarvi family at the Parnu Music FestivalNo less moving than the Shostakovich – in which Philharmonia principal bassoonist Amy Harman trumped even Hunt and exquisite flautist Jasmine Choi – were the two pieces by Arvo Pärt. On the eve of his 80th birthday he had fine-tuned an orchestral arrangement of a choral piece as Swansong, a short work but with nothing miniature about its arc of deeply expressive sound. I wanted to hear it all over again, but in the euphoria of the concert’s end, perhaps, there was no place for that.Pärt, incidentally, went to everything while he was in Pärnu, including rehearsals and the wonderful concert for local children in which some of the youngest Järvis shone (it was obvious which of them was the One Most Likely To... Pictured above by Taavi Kull: Kristjan, Paavo and Neeme Järvi with children/grandchildren).

Georgians toasted Estonians with fine wine in another gesture of solidarity at the official after-show party, with veteran Estonian conductor Eri Klas speaking movingly of his gratitude to Neeme, and at the next one back at the festival’s hub in town we all resolved, on the verge of tears, to return, hoping and praying that the neo-Stalinist Big Brother across the border leaves a rare EU success story in peace.

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