It’s not been a good week for conductors associated with the Philharmonia Orchestra. On Wednesday the death was announced of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who gave many concerts with this ensemble and made some classic recordings with it (Carmina Burana and Elijah, for example) and then Lorin Maazel informed us (through his website) that he is curtailing his career for some months ahead.
Thus Glinka’s bubbly Overture to his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla was a much-needed bright and breezy tonic, given with quick-pace exuberance and lovely lyrical turns. Although he harried the music just a little at times, Paavo Järvi otherwise ensured bounce and warmth. The Rachmaninov that followed was dispiriting and found Kirill Gerstein messily snatching at phrases, stabbing forcefully at certain notes and loudly riding roughshod over the orchestra in passages where greater equality is required. Järvi and the Philharmonia marshalled themselves well enough but it was a dutiful accompaniment to a pianist who brought negligible shape, feeling, romance, delicacy or fantasy to his part. Really quiet playing was at a premium, the sound he produced from the Steinway was edgy, and the very end was vulgarly hard-pressed, which rather summed up his macho and soulless rendition. Gerstein at least found some of those missing ingredients in his attractive encore, Etude for the Left-Hand (Opus 36) by Felix Blumenfeld (1883-1931), given with greater identity and focus and also with an appealing glitter and suggestiveness.
After the interval, an enthralling outing for Shostakovich 5 in a performance of blazing certainty that made one listen afresh to such a ubiquitous work. Järvi’s thought-through, well prepared and vibrant conducting inspired the Philharmonia to a searing and sensitive response, opening the Symphony in gruffly urgent terms before exposing expressive lacunae and ever-greater clandestine reverie. For all that Järvi went for contrasts, a wide dynamic range and a palette of detail, there was an underlying logic that allowed the first movement to hang together, its private and public utterances, the strutting if sarcastic march and the baleful climax, its aftermath chilly and uncertain. Järvi physically contoured every note of the scherzo’s floor-shaking opening bars, really dug into, militaristically, then mechanistic in the trio, although the clockwork was sometimes broken ironically. The slow movement was tragedy unfolded, given with a fire-and-ice beauty, at points unbelievably rapt, flickering on the faintest of sounds, at others unbelievably intense, flooding the auditorium with huge emotional outpouring. Nigel Black (horn) and Katherine Bryan (flute) once again distinguished themselves, she of ravishing tone. Järvi went straight into the finale, hammering out the opening with deliberation, perfectly timing the accelerando
and then investing much meaning into the slower music before grinding up to the falseness of the robotic coda – “our business is rejoicing” – Järvi’s gigantic steps here nearly rivalling Kurt Masur’s totally convincing massiveness; one side of the rouble pacifying Stalin and his acolytes with Shostakovich accepting “just criticism”, and the other side allowing free-thinking individuals to hear the truth about what was really happening at the time.
For all his appointments – directorships in Bremen and Paris, laureate positions in Cincinnati and Frankfurt, and advisory roles in his native Estonia, to which is added Chief Conductor of the NHKSO from the 2015-16 Season – Paavo Järvi seems to be thriving on his workload and certainly his return to the Philharmonia Orchestra in the coming years for a Nielsen Symphony Cycle seems rather enticing.