Tuesday 4 November 2008

Estonian of the Century

The 20th century, that is, towards the end of which (in 1998) the small but doughty homeland of Neeme Jarvi (one day I promise to sort out proper accents, umlauts et al on this site - he has, of course, two dots over his 'a' and the name is pronounced 'Nayma Yervi') chose him out of 25 contenders for the title. There he is above nine years before that on a momentous return to what was then still Soviet-occupied Estonia, receiving an honorary doctorate from Tallinn University at one of several unforgettable concerts I was lucky enough to witness. But he is certainly heading towards the 2010s in masterly shape, as his all too rare London visit this past week proved. OK, so he was to be heard depping for an indisposed Jansons with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican in June, but the Messiaen Turangalila I heard him conduct with rather hasty panache wasn’t his own choice of repertoire. This time, thanks to the canny organisation of Jurowski’s Revealing Tchaikovsky, it certainly was, with each of the two concerts culminating in long-term specialities that he alone can pull off these days – Taneyev’s Fourth Symphony and Kalinnikov’s First.

The style is still the man – passionately engaged but physically relaxed, with lots of genial shoulder conducting and friendly shrugging to the audience. I was so pleased to see him very much his old, crazy-about-music self backstage, courtesy of his wife Liilia, who greeted me after more than a decade with an exuberant 'I remember this man!' The picture supplied by the London Philharmonic of Neeme in his natty Nehru suit and hallmark blue hanky captures something of his character today.

Yet there's also an underlying iron discipline that allows him to take the orchestra (in this case an adoring LPO) anywhere he chooses. Of course, having already been somewhat infatuated with the Jurowski charisma it was a jolt to go back to another manner I know so well, and which can’t help but affect me with a warm nostalgia. I was a concert- and opera-hungry student in Edinburgh in the early 1980s when he galvanised the Scottish National Orchestra out of the torpor usually afflicting its sunset days with Sir Alexander Gibson. I interviewed him for the student newspaper, and have done many times since at every possible opportunity. I realise that then as now I must have seen him as a kind of surrogate for the musical father I never had (my own dear dad, who died when I was fifteen, claimed as the one and only piece of music he liked 'We are the Yeomen' from German's Merrie England ).

I’d heard Jarvi once before my student days, by chance, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980 with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – their first tour together and, it turned out, the point at which that particular love affair began and the contract was signed. This fun picture was taken of a younger Jarvi that year outside the orchestra’s splendid concert hall.

As for the 1980 London debut, I’d not heard much about these Swedes, and nothing about the newly-defected Estonian, whose name had just been wiped off his Russian recordings; I went because Soderstrom was singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The effect of that long-awaited favourite was blunted, I remember, by the jangling jewellery of my overdressed neighbour. But I was charmed by Alfven’s Midsummer Vigil, knocked for six by a fast-moving Sibelius Second and deeply moved by the first encore, the then little-known Arvo Part’s Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten.

I read in the GSO’s 70th birthday homage to Jarvi that, according to one player, the love-in began when he did something totally unexpected with the final chord of the Sibelius at the RFH, and the startled orchestra went with him. There were many such moments in the SNO concerts, and one especially amazing one last Wednesday, two-thirds of the way through the finale of a stunning Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, in which the Oistrakhian Vadim Gluzman took the vivacissimo faster than I’ve ever heard it live, safe in the knowledge that Jarvi would keep the LPO on its toes. Encountering the violinist backstage - he'd come into the stalls to hear the Taneyev - I remarked that with a conductor like that, he was free to do anything, and he said, ‘that’s exactly it’. You should rush to hear anything this violinist does - he's a virtuoso of the first order, but with surprising sensitivities and a collegial attitude to his orchestral colleagues that you rarely see from someone of that league. I've only twice before heard such concerto-collaborations, both conducted by Sir Andrew Davis - one was with Silvia Marcovici in the Bartok Second Violin Concerto, the other more recently with James Ehnes flowing through the Elgar. This autumnal image of Gluzman was taken by John Kringas.

Anyway, the moment in question was when Jarvi quite unexpectedly gave the woodwind extra space second time round in their briefly reflective solos. It was so unexpectedly moving and introspective that for the first time ever in the Tchaikovsky finale tears came to my eyes, and the rest of the deliriously wonderful conclusion could only seem especially magical in the aftermath of that seemingly improvised passage.

The Rimsky-Korsakov suites which served as curtain-raisers to both concerts brought plenty of laughs - especially at an outrageous rit in the swaggering, hubristic wedding march of The Golden Cockerel. That gives me the pretext of introducing another Bilibin illustration to complement all those gorgeous images several entries down: this is Pushkin's mysterious Queen of Shemakha appearing before the defeated Tsar Dadon.

Yet, as if to prove that Rimsky's music is not all fairy-tale ornamentation, Jarvi also brought great depth and breadth to that lovely Tsar Saltan interlude depicting the unfortunate Tsarina at sea in a barrel with her fast-growing son. The Taneyev Fourth came across as interesting, lumberingly scored but fluent in its ideas; but the real revelation was Kalinnikov 1 on Saturday. I'd always thought it was little more than a sweet specimen with one truly distinctive tune in the first movement (commandeered, Jurowski told me, for Soviet propaganda). But Jarvi focused the symphony's high spirits, wrought a special magic in the nocturnal tickings of the harp and strings as a cor anglais weaves its spell in the slow movement and brought Kalinnikov's delightful organisation to an uncontrived head in the finale.

This was a performance that made you full of the joys of spring, even at 9.30pm on a cold, wet November day which had started with the wedding of our friends Bella and Georgios at which J sang Gluck, continuing with my talk in the OAE's Tchaikovsky study day, chaired by my eloquent pal Christopher Cook, a dazzling pre-performance performance of the vast and sometimes troubling Second String Quartet by the Petersburg-based Atrium Quartet and of course the bumper programme. After that I steeled myself to head for the Hampstead residence of a delightful couple (Cypriot and Athenian, with Italian and Finnish guests) at which the lavish meal turned into a bacchanal of silly hats and dancing to Ry Cooder, a rather unexpected end to the day. I won't embarrass my hosts or fellow-guests by exposing them here, but who's this arrowed Elvis?

But back to more serious matters. Jurowski was there at Jarvi's concert, excited by the possibility of bringing in Balakirev and Borodin to a Liszt festival in 2011. I should also squeeze in a mention for his mostly-ballet programme with the OAE on Friday. It started with deliciously pointed Delibes - the complete Coppelia and Sylvia next, please - followed by the perfect original Rococo Variations with a cellist I found rather pale but whom Jurowski liked for his restraint, Alexander Rudin. The second half began with the too-long airing of Adam's Giselle Act Two. Opening and final Pas de deux would have been enough here, because Adam lapses into the ballet equivalent of Donizetti at his most routine in the middle of the act. Even so, last week I reviewed the Royal Ballet DVD with those great actor-dancers Cojocaru, Kobborg and Nunez (as Myrthe), and had to acknowledge that the Petipa choreography is pretty perfect in Act Two.

Adam's music, however, supports but does not lead as do the scores of Delibes and Tchaikovsky, so it didn't work so well in concert despite a wonderful viola solo for the lovers' last dance together. Everyone, of course, woke up to the succinct high drama of Swan Lake Act Four, taken at a crackling pace. After that, there was to be another late-night performance of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet for the young folk, at which a DJ was to remix Romeo. For this, the spirit was curious but the concerted-out flesh a little weak. Now, thank goodness, there's been a few days respite before the onslaught of Manfred tomorrow - but I wouldn't miss any of these events for the world.


Geo. said...

Have seen Neeme Järvi once live, on this side of the pond. His facial expression seems dour, which of course doesn't stop musicians from enjoying working with him (example here). When he announced the encore, he simply said: "Finnish composer....Guess who?" The audience chuckled, and the encore was, of course, "Valse triste".

David said...

Many thanks, George - you've done these two bloggers a service by cross referencing. I shall now consult our ?Detroit? bassist as an oracle on a regular basis. He captures the spirit of the man so well.

As for dour, well, that's heavy Estonian features for you. He twinkles beneath. When I went backstage, he actually didn't look too well and the face was impassive but still he was bubbling away with enthusiasm for the rep he was about to do.

Geo. said...

Actually, our blogging bassist plays for this band, but the higher-ups there have forbidden him from expressly mentioning the name of the city or his orchestra, which is why some of the comments dance around the name of his city.

I hadn't seen this particular concert with Järvi conducting, but a concert last year with Järvi's current orchestra that he leaves after this season.

David said...

Yes, I worked it out rather belatedly after another recording he mentioned. I'd forgotten NJ did a few recordings with the 'X'SO.

Re another poster, how WAS it that he ended up with the NJSO? I don't think I've EVER heard that orchestra. Presumably its socks have been pulled up by the master trainer - but was it ever/is it now any good?

Of course he should be head of the Concertgebouw or even the Berlin Phil.

Geo. said...

I've only heard the NJSO that one time, where the concert had Baiba Skride in DSCH # 2 (a string broke in the last movement; half the audience gasped; she calmly switched fiddles with the concertmaster and they picked up where they left off). They sounded like a perfectly fine band, certainly not the Berlin Phil or the Concertgebouw, but OK.

Their past MD's have included Hugh Wolff and Zdenek Macal, which isn't too bad a pedigree. This article gives some brief context as to what could have motivated Neeme Järvi to take the post. FWIW, he has a place in NYC, which helps with the commute, perhaps. Since you know him pretty well, I'm guessing perhaps that he's the type who likes to build up an orchestra, as opposed to just coasting with a band at the top of its game. Maybe that accounts for why he took it on too. (Also, since the Berlin Phil and the KCO elect their own chief conductors, they obviously didn't go for him.)

Anonymous said...

In addition to having Maestro Jarvi's Prokofiev _Fifth_ and Shostakovich_Ninth_, etc., I also have his recording of the four Berwald Symphonies. Like the late Maestro Hickox, he seems to have one of the broadest repertoires around, though I do not think there is any British, nor possibly
anything pre-19th Century (I cannot currently recall him even having conducted any Haydn nor Mozart), music there, and seem to recall him telling me that the former did not interest him when I met him briefly once here in

David said...

It's curious, I hadn't given much thought to this before you mentioned it, but I don't remember any Elgar nor Britten from my Edinburgh years - though he did conduct a superb VW Sea Symphony with Felicity Lott and (if memory serves me correctly) Thomas Allen at one of the Edinburgh Festivals.

As for C18, he recorded I think a huge cycle of Haydn symphonies in Estonia - surely someone could get those tapes? The deadpan wit suited him well. His Mozart was hyper-romantic with lots of rallentandos into second subjects a la Strauss-the-conductor. I found it quite refreshing at a time when the fledgling period-instrument movement temporarily threatened a stranglehold.

But the British absence is odd, especially as he embraced so much American music - Still, Barber, Ellington - with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Maybe he thought there were others who already did it well - after all, he succeeded Sir Alexander Gibson at the SNO, whose Elgar was the best thing about his twilight years there.

Senhori Positoni said...

many people forget as choreographer Lev Ivanov's ballet Giselle ... Petipa was ill and his disciple - Ivanov - has choreographed ballet