Opera + Classical Music Reviews

NHK Symphony Orchestra / Jäarvi @ Royal Festival Hall, London

24 February 2020

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi & Sol Gabetta
(Photo: Belinda Lawley)

The Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) Symphony Orchestra returned to London on Thursday with their Chief Conductor Paavo Järvi, to give excellent accounts of three works connected by their sensuous qualities.

Toru Takemitsu’s How slow the wind is the composer’s only work for chamber orchestra. It is a series of ‘episodes’ – short phrases made from instrumental accretions – which float like waterlilies of different colours and in different stages of opening on a tranquil harmonic pond. An enchanting seven-note rising phrase gradually makes its appearance, transformed, in each episode, by instrumentation, completeness or inversion. The piece might almost be considered as a development of the impressionist works of Debussy or Ravel. Järvi and the orchestra inhabited the work to perfection and delivered its delicate shimmering textures with skill and subtlety, allowing, through careful control of dynamic and balance, plenty of space for the listener to be drawn into its calm and finespun musical world.

The transcendental nature of the evening continued in the opening of Schumann’s Cello Concerto, for which the orchestra was joined by the Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta. Orchestra and soloist proceeded to give a textbook performance – which was nonetheless full of nuance – of this arguably most enigmatic of Schumann’s works. The transitions between movements (Schumann requires no pauses) were managed seamlessly, and the whole was suffused with an effortless competence. Gabetta’s style is appealing to those of us who regret the licence seemingly given to cellists to allow the physical to demonstrate their emotional involvement with the concerti they play. There are no sniffs or grunts, just solid technique, a clearly demonstrated connection with the music and its force, and a small amount of bend and sway. The intensity of the second movement was judged to perfection, and the no-fuss brilliance applied to the articulation of the rapid passages of the last movement merely added to the enjoyment. Although a smaller orchestra might have made for less effort in controlling dynamic and tone, Järvi kept the orchestra generally well balanced, so that its conversation with the soloist never became too unequal.

The Schumann formed a perfect bridge between the diaphanous dreamworld of the Takemitsu and the more solidly structured Romanticism of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Rachmaninov is always dependable for a good tune, and in this symphony he wears his heart on his sleeve, turning out exquisitely beautiful melodic material everywhere – not just in the second, slow movement, where the yearning theme is introduced from the start, but even in the heart of the scherzo he gives us a rich violin melody, and takes time out of the final movement’s hectic trepak to provide some lush romanticism.

The trick here, then, is to prevent all of this gooeyness from becoming too cloying, and to give attention to the contrasting material, and Järvi and the orchestra did not disappoint on this front. Although the soupy passages were given the breathing space they needed, tempo and dynamic received iron control throughout, so that, although a solid drive was the order of the day, the  changes in speed within this were pointed up to provide excitement; build-up of expectation and timing of delivery were spot on. The menace of the brass passage in the first movement was given full weight, the scherzo fugue was taken at breakneck pace, dynamic swells and retreats at the opening of the last movement were meticulously observed and the ‘bang’ before the entry of the grand melody in the same movement was startling. A tour de force of a performance.

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NHK Symphony Orchestra / Jäarvi @ Royal Festival Hall, London