Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here