If Romanticism implies evocation of the supernatural and virtuosity of playing, one could say that the evening’s program, led by Paavo Järvi, was indeed a very Romantic one. From the atmospheric opening of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a symphonic poem inspired by Goethe’s poem of the same name, Järvi instilled a spirit of unhurried grace. Some may have admired the supple strings and inimitable precision the Berliner Philharmoniker had brought to the Royal Festival Hall a few days ago, but the arsenal conceived by Järvi firmly established that a playing of sobriety without unsubtle embellishments, of judicious alterations between the various lights and shades of dynamics, and of orchestral transparency, had, perhaps, a special place at the hall. In effect, the tuttis had colour and swing, and the climax copious yet far from overwhelming in this little French masterpiece.

Paavo Järvi © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi
© Kaupo Kikkas

In performing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, it was the Russian Denis Kozhukhin who replaced Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist. Kozhukhin’s reputation may not be as lofty as what some of the audience tonight might have desired, but this was a concern fated to be futile. At times sensitive, at times visceral, and at times both in an entirely convincing way, Kozhukhin’s pianism demonstrated an immersive musical narrative, complemented with his impeccably crystal-clear technique. Although his audible murmuring was initially worrisome, these vocal intrusions were only proof of Kozhukhin’s musical confidence, as he cadenced through the variegated moods and shapes of Rachmaninov’s maze with natural fervour; musically, any indication of self-consciousness was largely kept at bay. Järvi’s empathic accompaniment proved invaluable, as even the minutest of Kozhukhin’s expressions were attended. Yet this is not to suggest the wanting of orchestral beef. In the soaring coda of the Finale, neither Kozhukhin nor the orchestra compromised any sort of their presence, as the work concluded triumphantly.

It felt only a matter of time for Järvi to craft an incredibly vivid Symphonie fantastique. Järvi opened up the work mysteriously, and the first theme of “Rêveries – Passions” introduced vibrancy into this dreamlike introduction sequence. The exposition repeat observed, Järvi’s rhythmic instincts were applaudable, as a stable pulse led the transparently and almost intimately argued orchestral texture. In contrast to the expansively and hence solemnly taken religiosamente coda of the last 15 bars of this first movement, the “Un bal”  transported the hall into a lighthearted ballroom, with woodwind canapés and the fizz of lilting waltz tunes crossing over each other sanguinely. The slowly moving “Scène aux champs”, on the other hand, was made of idyllic repose tinged with gentle melancholy.

The decision to bypass the repeat in the “Marche au supplice” was not exactly unforeseen, as the repeat can affect momentum. Yet given the last two movements’ invocations of drug overdose, death and demonic rites, the steady beat Järvi insisted upon in these movements neither embraced the frenzy nor nodded to the fantastical. While Järvi’s overall clear reading gave a real sense of occasion to the evening, it was simultaneously to this characteristic that one could attribute a certain denial of higher hopes in the end.