In concert – Sol Gabetta, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi: Takemitsu, Schumann & Rachmaninov

Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Monday 24 February 2020

Takemitsu How slow the wind (1991)
Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906-07)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This Royal Festival Hall concert offered the relatively rare chance to catch the NHK Symphony Orchestra, on a mini-tour from Tokyo in the company of their chief conductor, Paavo Järvi.

As he told Arcana in an interview the previous week, Järvi has been acquainting himself with the music of Toru Takemitsu in recent years, culminating in a recording of his orchestral works with the NHK. One of them, How slow the wind, was a descriptive and colourful way in which to open the concert, presenting a picture of relative calm.

One of Takemitsu’s best qualities is the descriptive power of his music, which is able to capture the elements in a subtle but meaningful way. Rain, earth and air are three you can expect to encounter with particularly vivid results, and the latter was to the fore in this intriguing symphonic poem. As the title suggests, it really was the slowed down movement of air, and was played with attention to detail and affection, painting a picture far away from the Southbank. The influence of Debussy, as outlined by Järvi, was clear, but so too were elements of Ravel and Messiaen, though the percussive colours in which Takemitsu dressed the piece were wholly his own.

Sol Gabetta then took charge of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Clearly this is a piece she loves, and it is gratifying in recent years to see the concerto come into the centre of the instrument’s repertoire. The first movement, dominated by a nagging theme that stays in your head for long after, was a dramatic affair, the cellist seizing the initiative but ensuring Järvi and the relatively small orchestral forces were with her every step of the way. Gabetta’s high register tone was probing, with unerring accuracy in her tuning.

When Schumann moves seamlessly into the slow movement it is like walking into a different, calmer room of the same house, but Gabetta ensured the links throughout were clearly signposted, and her duet with leader of the NHK cellos Ryoichi Fujimori was both sensitive and ideally balanced.

The finale found a bold approach from Gabetta capitalizing on Schumann’s innovative writing, with the written-out cadenza particularly strongly executed before a thoroughly affirmative end. Gabetta capped this with the inclusion of the first movement of VasksGramata cellam as an encore. Gabetta gave this at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2016 and it is no less startling heard once again with its vocalisation.

For the second half it was slow burning Rachmaninov, the NHK smoothly into their stride for the first movement of the Symphony no.2 in E minor. If the moody bass strings at the opening were slightly withdrawn, that gave Järvi plenty to work with as the music unfolded. With the faster tempo came an airy texture as though the sun was shining through outdoors. Once we had glimpsed the brightness it was hard not to let go of it, and the Scherzo, taken at a fastish tempo, glinted at the edges.

Järvi judged the famous Andante just right, indulging in the gorgeous textures but never overdoing it, so that Kei Ito’s clarinet was given the best possible platform to deliver a heartstopping solo. Yet it was in the excited whoops of the finale where this interpretation really delivered, the orchestra stepping up another gear as the music excitedly passed between the instrument groups, percussion adding a sheen to the wonderful wall of sound.

It being Estonian Independence Day, Järvi – while noting the amusement of celebrating the day in London with a Japanese orchestra – gave us a glimpse of summer through Heino Eller’s sunkissed Homeland Tune, from the 5 Pieces for Strings. It was a fitting end to a concert that helpfully reminded us of the approach of spring – and in the process told of classical music’s potential reach. A Japanese orchestra conducted by an Estonian with an Argentinian cellist. What’s not to like about that?!

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the programme performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi. It includes Gabetta’s recording of the Schumann, and leading recordings of the other repertoire (including encores):

For a very fine disc of Heino Eller’s music for string orchestra, this collection from the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tonu Kaljuste on ECM is just the ticket:

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