With Paavo Järvi you get the modern jet-setting conductor who, whatever the repertory, is always responsibly prepared, coaxing orchestras to give of their best. Watching him and the response of his players you get the strongest impression that here is a man one works with, not for. He's a music-maker first and foremost. A week ago in London he was putting the Philharmonia Orchestra through its paces in Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. On this occasion in Hamburg he was journeying a different emotional road, a late Austrian Habsburg one looking back from Berg to Bruckner, two composers he sees as a particularly intuitive mix.
In the interval interview of this webcast, he noted how for him Alban Berg's early death in 1935, at the age of fifty, was “the biggest tragedy of the twentieth-century … the most talented composer of the Second Viennese School … undated and relevant,” retaining a tonal persona to the end. In tackling the “curiosity” that's Bruckner's 1872 Second Symphony, the first of his Viennese period, he maintains it best to think of it rooted (hence by implication played) in mid-Romantic tones, to hear it of its day, freed of the monumentalism and “statement” of the later Symphonies. Mendelssohn came into his reference (‘Scottish’ Symphony?), but Schumann and Raff would not have gone amiss. Working with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, he reminded, brought back reminiscences of the “collective memory and DNA” of its post-war Bruckner tradition (Günter Wand's recordings presumably, but also, one imagines, the drama and tension of Tennstedt before him).
In keeping with Järvi's 2012 Frankfurt recording, this performance followed the 1877 revision in William Carragan's recent 2007 edition, complete with Carragan's optional reinstatement in the A-flat slow movement of the difficult (high) horn episode of the first version, deleted by Bruckner at, demonstrably, the expense of architectural balance. Aiming to convey a composer ever prone to symphonic tussling and indecision, yet to find his feet despite having reached his half-century, benefitting from musicians attentive and attuned to the style, Järvi presented us with ideas freshly brushed on a blank canvas. He found a deep, long poetry in the Andante (notwithstanding some pizzicato untidiness), the final hushed bars suspended like a Caspar David Friedrich night painting. He crafted fine, organically urgent codas to the outer movements (especially the Finale, a glory), and welded a magnificently hammering Scherzo (placed originally second), the orchestra at full tilt, with a particularly tender Trio. The circling, repetitive phrases, the climax-building, the terraced contrasts of timbre and dynamics, solos, unisons and tuttis, fire and lyricism in temporal/paused opposition – the Bruckner fingerprints we know so well – were never far away, yet in keeping with Järvi's desire, sensed more prophetically than memorially, foresight before hindsight: a triumph.
Using smaller forces favouring antiphonal violins, with four double basses to the left, Berg's 1928 orchestration of his Seven Early Songs, written while he was a student of Schoenberg, in Vienna, focussed on a different sequence of vistas. An order of expressive concentration touched vaguely by Wolf, Mahler, Strauss, Zemlinsky perhaps … distilled through ghosts from Verklärte Nacht ... flying freely yet chained by key-signatures. Järvi shaped a lusciously warm, chorded support for Laura Aikin, standing in at short notice for indisposed Hanna-Elisabeth Müller. Her account and projection wasn't altogether ideal, however, not helped by her placement behind the orchestra (to the right), a miscalculation. This had the effect, along with following her score too closely, of reducing proximity and distancing/covering the words (Berg's choice of poems are distinguished, they need to be articulated and heard). She gradually warmed into the music, but, given its brief fifteen-minute span, her uneasy vibrato never entirely went away. More bloom and beauty would have been welcome, vocally less within than with the ensemble.
One hears varyingly negative reports about the Elbphilharmonie; whatever its problems, the audio engineers seem to have the measure of the place. This was a sonically flattering relay, with plenty of presence and detail, and good camerawork. The highs of the Bruckner had plenty of air and space to impact and dissipate – all of five spacious in-the-round storeys from ground level.