Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris, 221 Avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Last week Paavo Järvi was recording Tchaikovsky with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich. Continuing the groove in this Paris concert, he crafted a view of the First Piano Concerto neither bloated nor histrionic, attentive to detail and smooth joining, tactfully steering back moments in danger of side-tracking into gratuitous effect. A quietly tensioned structure seemed to be the aim. Beatrice Rana proved largely reliable – rippling away, thundering her double octaves, mixing canzona and glitter in the slow movement, venturing those (?mannered) twists in the first’s cadenza familiar from her Santa Cecilia recording with Pappano. But her coolness, edgy body language and general disdainfulness made for a remote listening and watching experience, little more than an efficient run-through wanting in warmth and passion, the big moments held at arm’s length, the electricity at reduced voltage.

Which couldn’t be said of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, premiered little more than three years after Beethoven’s death yet of an advancement, orchestral modernity and risk that still captivates, astonishes and challenges. The Orchestre de Paris (of which Järvi was music director, 2010-16) has virtuoso command of its world. As much as atmosphere, water and air, streets and monuments, history and tradition, the sounds, rhythms and cadences of language, the countless indeterminables that go into defining the life, love, culture and psyche of place, it’s in the blood of everyone. These players don’t need to be taught this music, they don’t need high-octane choreography on the podium. Just a little policing at the crossroads. Järvi knows that.

Following him this past twelve months – from public concerts with the NHK Symphony and at his Pärnu Festival in Estonia to lockdown, no-audience pandemic-restricted webcasts with the Philharmonia and the Tonhalle-Orchester – it’s easy to see why he’s in such demand. Put plainly, he does his homework, his technique is crystal-clear. He’s an encouraging presence, not an invasive one. He does what’s necessary, his grounded physical communication is authoritative without being dictatorial. Making music harmoniously is what matters. He doesn’t have to manufacture drama or dreams. An occasional double-handed baton, the slightest movement of a shoulder, a stoop, a pursing of the mouth, a look in the eye, is enough to liberate. As one of his Zürich violinists put it to me, “there is so much the eyes can tell”.

First movement. The introduction’s woodwind balancing, that wonderful horn solo at Letter F, boded well. Crisp articulation. Boldly contrasted dynamics. Exposition repeat. The most haunting of hushed codas, the composer’s “whole orchestra as soft as possible”, the C major ensemble glowingly at rest. ‘A ball’. Three harps. A Parisian waltz, graceful, vigorous, rubato veined. ‘Scene in the Country. Järvi these days has a way with slow movements. This one was another canvas of masterly mood-painting and lyric voice. Poetic richesse, a magical leaning, from the opening cor anglais and offstage oboe exchanges. Glorious string playing. Sulphuric, mysterious thunder from the four timpani at the end, rolling yet rhythmic. Nightfall, solitude. ‘March to the Scaffold’. Inevitably onward moving, menacing. Interesting string detailing (the slurred/staccato precision attack at Letter H for one, the crescendo scale into Letter J for another). Maybe the pizzicato guillotine drop didn’t quite come off (a mezzo-forte miscalculation on Berlioz’s part, I’ve always thought), but the ascending first-violin arpeggiated G-major notes at the very end certainly did (rarely played so clearly, and the more satisfying for that). ‘Dies Irae’ Finale. More-prominent bells than usual but clearly effective programmatically. Pertinent distinction between Allegro = 112 at letter C (clarinet, bell raised = screeching bat) and Allegro = 104 at letter E. Monstrous downbeat pianissimo-offbeat fortissimo string/bass drum swells at Letter Q, Berlioz’s unnerving metric displacement sabre slashed.

Busy while other places are shut or in suspension – albeit without audience, and with masks, spacing restrictions and individual music stands in place – the Philharmonie’s webcast was tutti reverberant. Visually, the blue lighting, white spots and faint washes of mist created an evocative backcloth, any number of images and allusions rising out of the dark. Some of the camerawork focussing on Järvi made for striking shots, backlit scenes in Fantasia and old period black-and-whites coming to mind.