Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi is a welcome guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He was last in Berlin in May 2018, now he is back with a program of works by Witold Lutosławski and Johannes Brahms. Once again he proves that he is a no-nonsense yet warmhearted and elegant interpreter. He knows what he wants and the Berliners deliver it in their inimitable style.

Paarvo Järvi
© Ixi Chen

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra was first performed in 1954 and brought him to international attention, with its showcases for each instrumental sections and its broadly interpreted folkloristic themes. He used these themes as raw material, extracting from them highly artificial configurations. It may be interesting to know that Lutosławski had a portrait of Johannes Brahms in his study and was an outspoken admirer of this composer’s way with folklore.

The first of the three movements, "Intrada": Allegro maestoso starts out with an insisting timpani accompanied by a lugubrious cello line. There is no happy chaos here, even though it ends with a relentless harp, piano, and celesta in direct contrast to the beginning. By contrast, the Capriccio notturno ed arioso of the second movement begins just so — the strings like will o’ the wisps, disembodied and playful at first with shimmering semiquavers, then searing and inexorable, as if they want to tear the strings, not for the sake of violence, but for the sake of tormented expression. It is in the third movement — "Passacaglia, toccata e Corale" — that Järvi exacted unequivocal diction and sharpness. The final effect is enormous, lugubrious, breaking new ground (at the time) with a brass chorale that juxtaposes the distorted, profound theme of the double basses. Järvi, angular and disciplined, dissected this last movement transparently showing us the possibilities of endangered human dimensions, latent threats and subliminal terror with scattered vestiges of harmony and intimacy — and yes, even some moments of ecstasy.  

In the second half, that stalwart of the German 19th-century symphonic repertoire —  Johannes Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op. 73, composed in 1877. Time to relax and enjoy, close one’s eyes and just let the sweet, melancholic strains of the first movement’s Allegro non troppo envelope the soul, ending with gentle nostalgia. After all, the composer had commented that the “score had to have a black band of mourning around it”, to accent its melancholic character. The following Adagio showed us that Paavo Järvi’s conducting can be as elegant and flowing as Carlos Kleiber’s was in his day. The Allegretto grazioso of the third movement already starts to leave the troubled mind behind, with hints of Brahm’s customary use of folkloric melodies breaking through — Ländler dances and fast waltzes sweep away dark thoughts and ground it in earthly delights. These delights come through in the final Allegro con spirito, throwing caution to the wind, letting the strings surge, wild and energetic, opening up the gates to heaven with the trumpets and tuba clearly showing the way, reminiscent of Schubert’s C major Symphony, whom Brahms greatly admired. There were no sharp angularities in this Brahms, just the solemn communication between the conductor and a most receptive orchestra. There was a palpable sense of mutual respect and this results in glorious music-making. “Brahms has to sing and dance,” Järvi was quoted saying, and this he did with the Berliners, who clearly understood his intention. Only very rarely does Järvi allowed himself affectations such as the lowering of the hand to the ankle in a diminuendo. Otherwise, this is a conductor of great musical sensitivity, who is welcome back anytime to Berlin.