The Oceanides, Op.73
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
Vadim Gluzman (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 16 November, 2008
Venue: Edinburgh Festival Theatre
Frequent separations followed by rapturous reunions are a maxim often quoted as the best recipe for a successful relationship. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra has made something of a speciality of reunions with its former Chief Conductors – I vividly recall the return of Barbirolli in the 60s reprising a programme given thirty years previously and Walter Susskind coming back to conduct Shostakovich Tenth to rapturous acclaim. Scottish audiences are fiercely loyal to those they have taken to their hearts and the Festival Theatre was virtually full for one of Neeme Järvi’s comparatively infrequent visits (although he continues to record regularly with the Orchestra for Chandos). This was undoubtedly a special occasion.
Unusually amongst Sibelius’s tone poems, The Oceanides draws its inspiration not from the Kalevala but from Homer, Oceanides being the nymphs who inhabited the streams, rivers and waters of classical antiquity. Commissioned by the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut, it received its first performance there under the composer on the eve of the First World War (4 June 1914). It opens calmly, flutes glinting over the oceanic swell, gradually rising to a single overwhelming climax – superbly built and unleashed under Järvi’s sure but undemonstrative hand – before ebbing away with an epilogue from the oboe, eloquently and memorably realised by Emmanuel Laville.
The soloist in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was the Israeli-Ukrainian Vadim Gluzman, who plays a Stradivarius that once belonged to Leopold Auer, and is the recipient of the Henryk Szeryng Career Award. (Szeryng had strong links with Scotland, playing Sibelius’s Concerto regularly and unforgettably with the Scottish National under Sir Alexander Gibson.) If Gluzman lacks Szeryng’s finesse, he shares his emotional generosity. This was big-toned, communicative playing, occasionally variable in intonation, Sibelius viewed very much in the lineage of Tchaikovsky. Especially effective was the slow movement, richly voiced but not too slow and therefore better able to accommodate its urgent central climax. At several moments – notably the subtle violas at the movement’s close – Järvi’s mastery of detail in the accompaniment was transparently obvious. The finale – once described as a Polonaise for Polar Bears – was distinctly frisky, a far cry from the lumbering treatment it sometimes receives.
The evening’s highpoint was the Prokofiev symphony. Järvi and the RSNO have recorded all of Prokofiev’s symphonies for Chandos (recently repackaged) and it is worth remembering that one of Gibson’s earliest recordings (for the long-defunct Waverley label) was of the Fifth and that under Alexander Lazarev (the RSNO’s previous Music Director) there were also fine performances of this composer’s music.
Järvi’s way with the symphony is fluid and forward-moving, and less bleak than some other interpreters can be. Time and again one noticed particular details – the care with which the lead-in to the scherzo’s graceful central section was prepared (with wonderfully ‘present’ violas) or in the join to the slow movement’s minatory trumpet solo – and the sheer character of the playing, tangy winds in the moderately paced finale, its sly wit emerging without recourse to high-pressure tactics. Given such certainty of direction and self-evident relish in the playing, the symphony emerged with a degree of coherence its sometimes fails to achieve in performances which treat the work as a sonic spectacular.