Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Neeme Järvi in London – 1

Euryanthe – Overture
Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Neeme Järvi

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 25 June, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There was a rare buzz of anticipation in the Barbican before this first of two appearances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which more than affirmed its reputation as one of the greatest. With no soloists to share its limelight, the Dutch ensemble was able to revel in its glory.

Neeme Järvi. ©Detroit Symphony OrchestraPrincipal Conductor Mariss Jansons was taken ill a few days ago. His replacement (for an unchanged programme) was the less-flamboyant Neeme Järvi. Flamboyancy isn’t always an asset, however; and the solid but thrilling performances of Romantic German repertoire Järvi conjured in the concert’s first half could not have been bettered.

Attention was grabbed from the outset of the overture to Weber’s “Euryanthe”, the ebullient woodwinds getting stuck-in with particular verve. The orchestra’s passion and commitment, immediately evident, never waned. Throughout the overture, and the Schumann symphony, there was absolutely no sense of routine. Joy radiated from the faces of players old and young (the orchestra contains a healthy mix of both), and their enthusiasm manifested itself in fresh, vital performances that sounded as if the music was being discovered for the first time – but with expertly-honed sonorities.

Järvi’s minimalist direction made a refreshing change from the histrionic acrobatics of some conductors. With evident faith in his players, Järvi’s cool, commanding presence alone was often enough to communicate ideas – at times he stopped moving his arms altogether, offering the merest suggestion with a lift of the shoulder. With exciting, urgently driven fast movements and a gloriously mellow (but not wallowed in) Larghetto, the Schumann was pure delight, showcasing the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s sumptuous strings, gloriously warm (and impeccably tuned) brass, and characterful woodwinds. The close of the symphony was absolutely electric in intensity, a riveting conclusion to a phenomenally assured performance.

The second half may have benefited from Jansons’s more-extrovert touch. There are few more colourful works in the orchestral repertoire than Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – and it requires master showmen such as Jansons to bring it to life in the most vivid manner. From the opening brass ‘Promenade’, the RCO seemed a little less at home; and Järvi’s calm, laissez-faire direction meant that the well-played performance rarely sparkled.

There were some wonderful moments, though: the deliciously creamy saxophone solo in ‘The Old Castle’, which concluded with a mesmerising, perfectly-controlled diminuendo; the harsh, insinuating muted-trumpet solo and powerful cellos and double basses in “Two Polish Jews”; and the breathtakingly majestic tuttis of “Great Gate of Kiev”.

Elsewhere, however, it seemed like a quiet day at the usually-bustling Limoges market; the ‘Unhatched chicks’ were a little lacking in humour and distinctive character; and ‘Catacombs’, though grand and imposing, failed to send a chill down the spine.

This was still an impressive Pictures, though, well above the average in terms of playing alone; but ultimately it couldn’t consistently convey the unique vibrancy and contrasting moods of the canvasses, and so proved a disappointment after such a superb first half.

Sibelius’s Andante festivo was played as an encore and exploited the rich, resonant Concertgebouw strings – the crescendo on the concluding chord almost defied belief in its searing intensity.

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