Sergei Prokofiev

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

A concert in the major and minor of E-flat, Paavo Järvi, wisdom, experience and humanity to the fore, adding to the mix with insightful cameos of relaxed after-dinner conversationalist and urbane historical commentator.

“Austria shall retaliate against Napoleon”. Igor Levit, the Beethoven man of the hour, social-media and video-sharing platforms awash with his presence, had serious things to say. Yet his Fifth Concerto (‘Emperor’) didn’t always feel placed, a tendency towards haste in the outer movements leading to transient breathlessness and inelegance, at the expense of declamation and paragraphic phrasing. Beethoven writes Allegro but con brio was Levit’s take, especially so in the Finale, racing beats, notes and punctuation (brief rehearsal clips, the tempo moderated marginally, suggested an arguably preferable earlier course). Beethoven’s un poco moto Adagio, on the other hand, flowed with the current, the alla breve of the autograph and first edition unassumingly conveyed.

Levit is not a pianist to give us an ordinary, routine performance. He’s constantly enquiring, living, risking the moment. Yet, not for the first time, I wonder if he doesn’t sometimes try too hard, seduced by effect and nuance. When he applies extremes of touch and refinements of dynamic, stylistically more from a later age than Beethoven’s, it leaves me uneasy. I liked the evident articulation of the descending right-hand slurred staccato triplets in his slow movement entry but couldn’t justify the missed or erratically projected high notes along the way. Pianissimo maybe, but this is music that needs to speak and sing vocally. Elsewhere his choice of fingerings – that or the mechanics of his Steinway – inclined towards irregular trills. Come the end, it all seemed a bit like work in progress, interesting certainly but not quite of a piece. Which couldn’t be said of Järvi’s contribution – this, he said, his thirty-fourth performance of the work. His manner and body language encouraged grandeur and solo contributions from the Berliner Philharmoniker (Emmanuel Pahud’s first flute not least). He found theatrically dark colours in the double basses (four, left of stage). And, contrasting the majority, allowed the violins a measure of their counter-subject presence in the horn duo at bar 49 of the first movement – a welcome touch, putting me in mind of what Colin Davis did in the studio for Arrau in Dresden in 1984.

“Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.” Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony (1945-47), premiered in Leningrad by Mravinsky to “politely positive reviews” but then castigated as a formalist failure by Stalin’s “gang”, rarely gets a hearing. But in modern times Järvi, Gergiev (who conducted it in Berlin in 2015) and Søndergård have all notably championed it; while Järvi Senior, Neeme, recorded it with the Scottish National Orchestra back in the mid-80s. In a discursively authoritative interview with the percussionist and jazz pianist Raphael Haeger, Paavo identified it as a “quintessential Soviet” work from a period when “all composers, without exception, were terrorised by clear [party] guidelines.” “Serious, heart-warming, tragic, philosophical, questioning music.” A Symphony without narrative, but with as clear a subtext as anything in Shostakovich. The wailing air-raid sirens of the first movement: “the war was freshly in the mind”, 25-million dead. The Pioneer backcloth of the Finale, alluding to the October Child-Pioneer-Communist Youth-Party Member levels of Soviet ideology. “Pioneer kids sang patriotic songs, they were made to march, to do everything to glorify the system. You can imagine black-and-white newsreels, you can see red-scarfed children enjoying the prosperity and beautiful life of Soviet reality” – said with blue-eyed wryness, remembering all too clearly having grown up in Estonia under the Soviets (he didn’t go to America until 1980). He should write a book…

This was an epic reading, powerful in its profundity, theatre and tension. Russian novel, torn apart history, games and pranks, sarcasm and ballet all rolled into one intense canvas. The Berliners responded magnificently, gold-plated at every turn, safe in their excellence, safe in the hands of a master conductor. Not a journey I would have wanted to miss.

Superior audio-visuals, physically tangible. A rare slip-up in the concert blurb, though. It wasn’t Czerny who gave the public premiere of the Concerto but Friedrich Schneider, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in November 1811.