An American in Paris … Harmonielehre

An American in Paris
Piano Concerto in F

Wayne Marshall (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Kristjan Järvi

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 8 November, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Kristjan Järvi. Photograph: kristjanjarvi.comOwing to a shoulder injury, Antonio Pappano was unable to conduct this concert and was replaced by Kristjan Järvi, the son of Neeme Järvi and younger brother of Paavo.

Kristjan Järvi is an elegant and dynamic conductor, although his over-prominent pointing of entries seems intended to impress the audience rather than provide guidance to the orchestra. Nevertheless, in An American in Paris, he secured playing of elan and atmosphere, and if there was sometimes an emphasis on the impressionistic elements of the score rather than warmth and nostalgia, there was verve and excitement aplenty.

Wayne Marshall’s entry in the Concerto, at a notably faster tempo than the orchestral introduction, and involving a considerable amount of rubato, suggested an improvisatory, jazz-inflected interpretation. Järvi, a sensitive accompanist, matched his initially much slower tempo to his soloist’s, which made for some exciting results but which missed something of the music’s Romantic sensibility. The breakneck pace allowed Marshall to demonstrate an amazing technique, but even though Järvi brought the movement to a viscerally thrilling climax, this was playing to the crowd rather than displaying genuine musicality.

After a suitably languid, bluesy introduction to the slow movement, Marshall’s entry once again heralded a hastening of the tempo. The orchestra, especially its guest leader, did a wonderful job in duet with the quixotic pianism. Marshall slowed his pace for the cadenza, which appeared to be something of his own. The finale brought more fast tempos, but appropriately so, and with Järvi drawing electric climaxes from the LSO. But the overall effect of the concerto was unbalanced.

John Adams’s Harmonielehre was premiered in March 1985 and takes its name from Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 study of tonal harmony. Järvi’s conducting style was noticeably more restrained, the swirling baton movements and swaying body replaced by simpler, more-efficient direction. This was reflected in the music-making, with the pounding opening chords of Part 1 sounding disciplined rather than dramatic, and the central section evoking cool, oceanic depths rather than Mahlerian yearning. This was fine up to a point, but the reappearance of the chugging woodwinds failed to bring the necessary sense of anticipation and the close was insufficiently stirring.

In Part 2, a melancholy slow movement entitled ‘The Amfortas Wound’, Järvi conjured marvellously blended sonorities, subtle graduations of textures and playing of great precision. However, the effect was as cold as ice, the lack of an emotional centre ultimately rather draining. The need for five musicians to move back and forth amongst Adams’s wide variety of percussion was reminiscent of waiters in a cocktail bar. Part 3, ‘Meister Eckhardt and Quackie’, brought virtuosic playing. Even here, though, Järvi failed to find much emotional tension in the music, even if the sheer quality of the London Symphony Orchestra’s playing was a pleasure in itself.

The audience was remarkably free from the usual coughs, but two women seemed unaware that their repeated whispering was disturbing people several rows away, despite derisory glances in their direction.

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