Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (27 January)

Jeu de cartes
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Neeme Järvi

Reviewed by: Michael Allen

Reviewed: 27 January, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Grandly titled the National Orchestra of Sweden, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra gave the first concert of a British tour to an enthusiastic full house. Neeme Järvi has been the GSO’s Principal Conductor for a remarkable twenty-two years and, in fact, soon steps-down to become Conductor Emeritus. The programme specified that Järvi has played a major role “in shaping the orchestra’s artistic integrity and unique personality” – he has surely helped create an orchestra that whilst not having a very big sound (at least as far as the Royal Festival Hall is concerned!) certainly plays with huge character, care for detail and, in contrast to not a few of the London bands seen at this venue, seems to exhibit real enjoyment in its music-making.

Knowing Järvi’s reputation for tackling new scores, particularly by Scandinavian and Baltic composers, it’s rather a shame that the concert didn’t include something more unusual than Stravinsky, Sibelius and Rachmaninov, but this is no doubt due more to the SBC being wary, certainly for single concerts, of anything remotely challenging rather than any reluctance on the part of our distinguished visitors.

Still, Stravinsky’s ballet Jeu de cartes doesn’t turn up every day and although the orchestra took some time to warm up, they gave a witty, rhythmically tight, and colourful account of this tricky score. The GSO’s woodwind section is very impressive – puissant, precise and alert to every accent, dynamic and phrase mark; flutes and clarinets made a particularly beautiful sound. By the time we got to the final ’deal’ and the quirky references to Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture everything had settled and Stravinsky’s irrepressible imagination took flight.

The playing of Nikolaj Znaider has been much praised; indeed the present writer has very fond memories of the Nielsen concerto at the Proms a couple of years ago. It gives no pleasure to report, then, that this performance of the Sibelius didn’t do anyone, least of all the composer, any favours at all. Perhaps Znaider is a victim of his publicity – a commanding platform presence, elegantly attired, every inch the handsome, dashing virtuoso – such a pity then that he has so little regard for what is written in a score. This was a performance of eccentricity and exaggeration – excessive rubato, distorted rhythms, unsettling dynamic liberties, botched runs and some sour intonation. It was also a demonstration of fine conducting – a large bouquet to Maestro Järvi for not only following his wayward soloist but providing a really excellent accompaniment, highlighting tiny details in this wonderful music that are usually glossed over.

With the orchestra left to its own devices, the second half more than restored one’s faith – a fresh and colourful account of Rachmaninov’s still-underrated Third Symphony. Perhaps the audience was full of Swedes – the welcome lack of bronchial outbursts that has become a depressing feature of our concert halls enabled Järvi to give real atmosphere to the hushed opening and to the slow movement. The awkward transformation from Adagio to Scherzo was handled with panache and, once again, there was some heart-stopping solo playing – from principal flute Anders Jonhäll and from the leader, Christer Thorvaldsson. The finale was as touching as it was exhilarating. Järvi really understands this music – the ebb and flow of Rachmaninov’s written and unwritten rubato was natural and heartfelt.

Järvi’s personal and inspired interpretation also honoured the composer’s intentions. If one needed reminding that Rachmaninov’s orchestration is amongst the very best there is – this was the performance to do so. Two generous encores, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Sibelius’s Andante festivo, and a wave from the genial maestro, brought the evening to an end.

Now that Järvi is giving up his music directorships in Gothenburg (this year) and Detroit (next), hopefully we might see him more in London. Our orchestras could do far worse than fix some guest dates for him – Järvi’s idiosyncratic technique, willingness to tackle the broadest repertoire, and sheer warm-hearted attitude to music, bring a welcome breath of fresh air.

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