With its long stretch of white beach and dotted about with spa hotels, Pärnu is truly Estonia's summer capital. Families have holidayed here for years, including Estonia's great musical dynasty, the Järvis. Neeme would bring his wife and children here and it was in Pärnu that a young Paavo Järvi first met Dmitri Shostakovich. The great violinist David Oistrakh would invite young musicians to play with him in the dacha he rented each summer and it is in this spirit that, in 2011, Paavo created a music festival to foster – and celebrate – young Estonian musical talent.

Paavo – and Kristjan – Järvi in rehearsal with the Estonian Festival Orchestra © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo – and Kristjan – Järvi in rehearsal with the Estonian Festival Orchestra
© Kaupo Kikkas

The Pärnu Music Festival features an Academy Orchestra – headed by Neeme, the godfather of the Estonian classical music scene – and a programme of conducting masterclasses. But the pride of Pärnu is Paavo's Estonian Festival Orchestra, an ensemble hand-picked by the conductor which features a core of young Estonians balanced by soloists from top orchestras around Europe. The orchestra is making international waves – including an impressive debut at the BBC Proms last summer – but to hear them on their own turf in front of its adoring home audience gave the perfect introduction to this festival's ethos.

There were strong Baltic and Scandinavian roots in the EFO's programme, which included works by Estonians Erkki-Sven Tüür, a featured composer this season, and Kristjan Järvi. Written for strings, Tüür's L'ombra della croce takes Carlo Gesualdo's motet O crux benedicta as its reference point, its rich polyphonic ecstasies reminding me of Tippett's treatment of Corelli. The bright acoustic of the Pärnu Concert Hall allowed each luminous shaft of string colour to bounce and reflect from each slightly cold surface. Kristjan's Korale for 80, a revision of his 2017 work to celebrate his Neeme's 80th birthday, has a similarly religious base. Taking a Bach chorale, he sprinkles it with harp and percussion flecks from the opening, building it into an uplifting crescendo capped by tubular bells; the performance was tightly moulded. When Paavo called his brother to the stage to take a bow and share a hug, I could see Neeme glowing with pride in the row behind me.

Truls Mørk and the Estonian Festival Orchestra © Kaupo Kikkas
Truls Mørk and the Estonian Festival Orchestra
© Kaupo Kikkas

The hall was less suited to Dvořák's Cello Concerto, or at least the performance given by Järvi's orchestra. While the bosky woodwind shadows were muskily evoked in the opening bars – particularly by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen's principal clarinet, Matt Hunt – many of the orchestral tuttis were simply too dense, too forceful for the refined, restrained playing of soloist Truls Mørk. Belying the intimidating press photos of his youth, Mørk is a gentle giant of the cello world, a sensitive player, his oaken sound finely spun. Swamped by the EFO through much of the opening Allegro, Mørk was better suited to the lyrical, long-breathed Adagio. He lent a stronger emphasis to the finale's yearning, wistful qualities than its dancing outbursts, before capping all with a tender Pablo Casals encore.

The acoustics responded far better to the red-blooded, in-your-face muscle of Carl Nielsen's First Symphony, given a terrific performance. Järvi's immaculate conducting, peppered with smiles and winks at the leader, kept the reins taut, but Nielsen's exuberance burst forth at every opportunity, especially the rapier-like parry and thrust from the brass at the close of the haughty Allegro orgoglioso first movement. The strings, powered by a bass section of seven (five of them women) really dug into the Andante, while the emphatic attack in the joyous finale was infectious. That joy was unconfined in the quirky encore, a strutting account of Leroy Anderson's sassy Fiddle-Faddle that had us dancing long into the Estonian night.


Mark's press trip to Estonia was funded by Red House Productions

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