sat 24/08/2019

Van de Wiel, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Van de Wiel, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH

Van de Wiel, Philharmonia, Järvi, RFH

Performances of Nielsen and Haydn that needed more orchestral focus

Paavo Järvi in his native EstoniaKaupo Kikkas

“Choleric humour, pathos and kindliness are mingled in conflict," wrote Robert Simpson of Nielsen’s 1928 Clarinet Concerto. The work was written for a player with a complex character, full of contradictions. Last night’s soloist, Mark van de Wiel, the Philharmonia's principal clarinettist, gave a fluent performance of the work convincing on its own terms, portraying the protagonist as an introvert and anti-hero. He mostly looked down, sometimes appeared anguished, occasionally tapped his feet in rhythm, and only sought out the conductor with his gaze in order to ensure that the more complex transitions of pace went through without a hitch. 

There are performances which bring to the fore much more of the humour, the tendency to cajole and tease that are there in this work. This one was firmly fixed on its darker side. Particularly successful were the irascible episodes where the soloist is spurred to gruffness and anger by the provocations of a side drum – played by the excellent and characterful Matt Prendergast, one of no fewer than 10 guest principals on stage last night. 

Mark van de Wiel Photo: Guy WigmorePaavo Järvi (main picture) also brought out the accented folk dance rhythms well, causing the soloist at one point to a visible physical reaction -  an almost involuntary shimmy, a rare moment of cheerfulness. The ending, where the soloist finally finds calm, was convincing from him, and yet a disappointment overall. The upper strings somehow failed to give van de Wiel (pictured right) enough of the tendernesss and solace that is clearly there in the string writing; their phrases were lacking in both pathos and definition.

The absence of convincing shape to the string phrasing was also a feature which compromised the opening work, Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G minor. There were lightness, humour and efficiency in the outer movements, but the Andante lacked both lyricism and depth.  

Nielsen in 1928The work in the second half was Nielsen’s Third Symphony of 1910-11, the Espansiva. This performance brought to mind the pull-out quote which Paavo Järvi’s management have put very prominently on his page on their website, as his calling card: “Järvi clearly prizes highly charged music making, often at top speed, with thoughtful phrasing and sharply punched accents… these qualities yield refreshing, powerful performances.” Järvi has gestures – the underarm sweep, the forward lunge, the stamping foot -  which whip up the orchestra to a blazing tutti.

When all 13 brass players were going for it, the sound was glorious. There were sections, such as the eight-strong bass contingent, which responded with unanimity and presence. Todd Gibson-Cornish as principal bassoon was highly effective throughout. But there were moments when expectations were unfulfilled, such as when Järvi  was cajoling the horns which Nielsen (pictured above left in the year of the Clarinet Concerto, 1928) often uses to herald the transition to a new temperament. This performance ran the risk of becoming just a series of highlights: when the intensity was pulled back, the orchestra's focus and purpose became less distinct.

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