Venerable Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi has done much to bring the work of his compatriot, Heino Eller, to the attention of classical audiences. Eller’s 5 Pieces for String Orchestra is a suite of pleasing micro-movements: a romance, two dances, a lullaby and the best-known of all, the homeland “Melody”. As you might expect, it’s all about the strings. There was a fullness achieved in long, heavy bowing: the late Romantic flavor was unambiguously present. Tonal contrasts could have been more drawn out in the first of the dances; the weightiness was achieved at the expense of a certain lightness. The Lullaby was rendered somewhat matter-of-factedly for what it was, a really rather beautifully spun melody, but more of the singing-like quality was brought out in the “Melody”.

Baiba Skride © Marco Borggreve
Baiba Skride
© Marco Borggreve
Latvian violinist Baiba Skride made a solid debut at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major. The celebrated dream-like opening (tellingly, sognando in the score) came from a far away place, and was sparingly and alluringly played, conveying a sense of ethereal mystery. The sparing quality served her less well in some of the all-out passages that followed: they called for a more punched-out, importunate sound: the part about which David Oistrakh reports Prokofiev as saying “play it as though you’re trying to convince someone of something”. At times, in the first movement, I felt that her virtuosity could have been flung down with more abandon, but there was much rhythmic drive, some excitingly frenzied double-stops, and a strong visual line between her and the conductor, and by extension the orchestra. At the movement’s end, when the dreamlike state is restored, there is a moment of magical musical connection between harp, violin and flute. It sounds thoroughly silvery without being at all clichéd. I thought the silver here could have done with more polishing to bring out its shimmering quality.

The second movement Scherzo is as unforgiving a rhythmic tour de force as it is possible to get. Skride let rip rather more here, effectively mastering the illusion that the music is running away with itself, all the while retaining control. Tension was created effectively with eerie sliding scales. The third movement Moderato started out a little taut but unwound into full-blown lyricism. Occasionally I thought the sound could be pressed out more, massaged, as it were, until it almost hurts. There is an ache, a painfulness, in this movement, which needs to be given liberty to express itself.

Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major is unquestionably a work which is serious of purpose, and Masetro Järvi, clearly very comfortable with such thoroughly earnest music, brought out an aptly heavy fullness of sound from the orchestral desks. Whether the work is a programmatic evocation of Finnish nationalism and independence struggles or not is a controversial question (probably not, although this did not prevent the claim from being at the time by a conductor and close friend of the composer’s, Georg Schnéevoigt). Still, the integration of a folksong idiom marks this out as a work of nationalist spirit if not actual representation.

The finest quality of tonight’s interpretation was its weightiness of sound. There was a lot of heavy bowing this evening, in fact, which suited the predominant style. The bassoons in the Andante were suitably lugubrious: a lot of rumblings in the lower register set forth the drama of this striking movement. The complete change of tone, instrumentation, volume and key when the violins lead with their melody wasn’t, however, as effectively rendered. They sounded a little heavy, as if they couldn’t quite shake off what they were doing well, so as to do something altogether different. Again, the trio of the scherzo was occasionally on the ponderous side of languorous, and the terrifyingly-paced scherzo itself sounded a little terrified rather than controlled. But by the finale, we had a true liberation of the ‘fortes’ and a powerfully-worked climax. 

***11