Online concert review – Lars Vogt, Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi @ Pärnu Festival – Mozart & Tubin

paavo-jarvi

Lars Vogt (piano), Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (above)

Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Tubin Music for strings (1963); Suite from The Goblin (Kratt, 1961)

Pärnu Concert Hall, Estonia
Wednesday 14 July 2021, available online

Written by Ben Hogwood
Picture of Lars Vogt (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

This attractive concert was one of the calling cards for the Pärnu Festival, an annual event marking the end of its first decade in the Southern Estonia city. Its patron, conductor Paavo Järvi, was conducting his ‘home’ orchestra, the Estonian Festival Orchestra, inspired by Lucerne’s festival orchestra, in a nicely devised program of Mozart and the seldom-heard composer Eduard Tubin.

To begin with, Järvi and the orchestra were joined by pianist Lars Vogt in one of Mozart’s stormier utterances, the Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor. Vogt has been an inspiration in his career but particularly of late, documenting his battle with cancer in an admirably forthright fashion. Part of his therapy is to play music, to the extent of playing on an upright piano during his chemotherapy sessions, and also to take every chance offered to him to playing music live.

This only heightened the admiration and enjoyment for his performance here, as with heartfelt playing Vogt got right to the centre of this most dramatic of Mozart’s concertos. Järvi followed his lead and was helped by some very fine wind playing, particularly in the slow movement. The first movement had a great deal of Sturm und Drang, the angular contours of the main theme ideally phrased. Vogt’s solo episodes were impeccably delivered but always had an ear towards the orchestra, where the strings gave incisive commentary. The final Allegretto allowed a bit more room for playful exchange, and there was a wonderful shaft of sunlight as the music turned from minor to major key, sensitively engineered by the conductor. As a suitable ⁹encore, Vogt chose Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2, watched appreciatively from the sidelines by Järvi.

Lars-Portrait-3-©-Giorgia-Bertazzi

Eduard Tubin‘s Music for Strings was an intriguing choice just after the interval, representing a desire for the festival to showcase the music of Estonia itself. Tubin, who died in 1982, is still under-represented on the stage, but this was the ideal platform from which to appreciate it. Music for Strings is a slightly elusive but compelling piece, resilient and attractively scored. It brings an economical and slightly classical approach, but with forward looking harmonic language. When the bass strings dug in during the passacaglia first movement the furrowed brow of Shostakovich could be glimpsed, yet the upper reaches of the violins felt as though the music was reaching further north. The second movement was more mysterious and questioning, while the finale, an Adagio, featured excellent solo violin playing from the unnamed Estonian Festival Orchestra concertmaster.

The program finished with a suite from Tubin’s 1943 ballet Kratt (The Goblin). Composition for the whole work began in 1938, making use of melodies from the Estonian Folklore Archive in Tartu. Although the Russian occupation of Estonia in 1940 forbade modern music, Kratt passed the sensors on account of its use of traditional themes, and not the way in which they were treated – which has reminiscences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Tubin constructed the shorter suite in 1961, to a commission from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

The ballet is based around a peasant who builds a magical figure (Kratt) in order to make him rich – but to do this he has to give three drops of blood to the devil. Perhaps not surprisingly the story does not run smoothly, with the peasant – and his soul – meeting a grisly end at the hands of the goblin. Yet the side plot of a love affair on the farm where the peasant lives brings more light hearted material.

Tubin’s music is ideal concert fayre, tuneful and with lively orchestration. Järvi ensured the syncopations of the dance numbers were sharply rendered, bringing through Tubin’s imaginative writing for wind and brass in particular. The final dance scene was the most captivating, with a soulful cor anglais solo leading into the driven rhythms of the Dance of the Exorcists, featuring the added punch of the orchestral piano. The Goat and The Cock were sharply characterised, bringing reminders of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, before snarling brass punctuating the outgoing Dance Of The Northern Lights, a more rustic affair. The brass themselves were completely on point, especially in the final statement, warmly received by the audience.

This was a most enjoyable concert, confirming the warm atmosphere in which this festival operates. It is clear Paavo Järvi and friends are building something special here, and it is to be hoped when restrictions are finally lifted that the chance will arise to experience it in person.

You can watch the concert on the festival’s dedicated TV channel here

Lars Vogt talks about his music making after his cancer diagnosis in February and his ongoing treatment with Kate Molleson on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, available on BBC Sounds

For more information on the Pärnu Festival you can visit their website

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