Night on a Bare Mountain
Violin Concerto [London premiere]
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Isabelle van Keulen (violin)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Despite being ensconced in Cincinnati, Paavo Järvi is maintaining a busy schedule as guest conductor. This Prom found him at the helm of the BBC Philharmonic – opening with Night on a Bare Mountain, in the edition by Rimsky-Korsakov that, like most of his Mussorgsky re-workings, has lost much of its former popularity. Järvi brought an incisiveness and bite to the orchestration that went some way to reconciling this version with Mussorgsky’s abrasive original, just a couple of awkward gear changes undermining overall continuity. The lengthy coda was poetically done, opening the piece out onto new vistas rather than merely providing a bland resolution.
The concerto slot brought a welcome opportunity to reappraise the Violin Concerto by the Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür, of which Järvi conducted a memorable performance in Birmingham last year. Isabelle van Keulen was on hand again to deliver the solo part with the blend of the visceral and cerebral it requires. The work plays continuously, with the opening movement running for over half of its 30 minutes. As heard this evening, the fast arpeggio patterns of the soloist and the antagonism they generate with the orchestra seemed to take too much time evolving into the more integrated later stages, with their well-defined harmonic logic and never contrived melodic profile.
The gradual ushering in of the second movement was magically achieved, as was its reaching towards greater animation and harmonic tension. For all its rhythmic velocity, however, the finale still seems too brief and ’added-on’ an attempt at formal and expressive closure, while the string writing skirts the Tabula Rasa domain of Arvo Pärt in a way that Tüür has not done before or since. Perhaps his initial inclination to close the work with the sombre repose at the end of that second movement was right after all. Judge for yourself with the excellent recording of the work just out from ECM [472 497-2]: a disc that also features the complementary orchestral pieces Aditus and Exodus, the latter possibly Tüür’s most impressive large-scale work so far.
Now acknowledged as his finest symphony, Prokofiev’s Sixth has had a chequered career in the concert hall. A performance by the BBC Symphony, as part of last season’s Prokofiev cycle, was no more than adequate. Järvi got much closer to the stark tragedy that lies at its heart. This he did in the opening ’Allegro moderato’ without overplaying climaxes or underlining transitions; keeping a tight grip on the unfolding of some of the composer’s most well-defined and self-evolving themes, and letting emotional expression speak for itself. The ominous approach to the central climax was astutely judged, and if the latter itself could have packed a greater punch, its place in the overall scheme was never in doubt.
The highlight of the performance, as of the work itself, was the central ’Largo’ – shot through with a pathos and generosity of spirit more common in Prokofiev’s music than is often supposed, but rarely – if ever – as pronounced as here. The trumpet which caps the strings’ main melody was a touch too insistent first time round, but the contrasting episodes of tenderness and final resignation were rapt in their intensity. So much so that the closing ’Vivace’ initially felt lightweight by comparison, Järvi failing to point up the music’s needle-sharp irony as keenly as is necessary. Yet the deliberately banal momentum duly established itself, preparing for the anguish and grim resolution of the close.
A secure and imposing performance than – not surprising given both the Prokofiev credentials of the orchestra (Edward Downes its chief conductor for over a decade) and Järvi’s own background (his father having made what is still the finest modern recording of the work). Interestingly, he proceeded attacca between movements, so maintaining momentum and giving no opportunity for untimely applause. Unlikely on this occasion perhaps, but in view of the blandishments on this subject being trotted out by musical ’professionals’ on BBC4 over the last fortnight, a decision well taken.
- Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 5 August at 2.00 p.m.
- BBC Proms