Is it possible to run a quiet orchestra? Apparently so if youʼre Neeme Järvi and the ensemble is the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, which closed out this yearʼs Dvořákʼs Prague festival not with a bang but a whisper.

Nicola Benedetti and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
© Petra Hajská

In some ways it was a refreshing change. Many orchestras equate volume with impact, and in skilled hands dynamics can transform a piece from tame to thrilling. But itʼs difficult to maintain clarity and precision when 100+ musicians are blasting away, pushing both the sound and speed off the charts. In an intimate venue like the Rudolfinum, itʼs also critical to adjust the sonics to the space. Visiting orchestras often play like they've just come from Royal Albert Hall, overwhelming listeners instead of entrancing them.

Järvi, the longtime artistic director and principal conductor of Estoniaʼs flagship orchestra, prefers to work on the other end of the scale, with subtlety, nuance and accents as light as a feather. If there is one word that captures his style, itʼs “muted” – an approach that works better with some pieces than others. For this performance he was fortunate to be accompanied by Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, an adventurous soloist who brings fire to everything she plays.

The opening piece, Heino Ellerʼs symphonic poem Dawn, is a short but signature work in the Estonian repertoire. There was not a hint of nationalism in this interpretation – in fact, quite the opposite. Järvi emphasized the pieceʼs lyrical qualities and romantic depiction of nature, in the process showcasing the orchestraʼs strengths: great colors, chiefly from an outstanding woodwinds section, and a strikingly clean, controlled sound, with a silvery finish that lent Dawn a special glow.

Nicola Benedetti and Neeme Järvi
© Petra Hajská

It would be an exaggeration to say that Benedetti owns Sibeliusʼ Violin concerto in D minor, but not much. After an icy start to establish a contrasting voice with the orchestra, she blazed through the cadenza in the first movement and maintained a breathtaking level of intensity and command throughout, combining virtuoso technical skills with a deep reading of every bar. There were moments in the final movement when it seemed like the orchestra was running to catch up with her, but for the most part Benedetti and Järvi worked together beautifully, especially in knitting together the delicate lines of the second movement. Overall, the orchestraʼs gift for understated, graceful accompaniment was a perfect complement to Benedettiʼs fire and ice.

Brucknerʼs Fourth Symphony seemed a poor fit for the orchestraʼs style. The lyricism and romantic elements were charming, but otherwise Järvi led a bloodless interpretation, noticeably strained in the big finishes of the third and fourth movements. While there were moments that held the promise of excitement, exuberance just doesnʼt seem to be in this orchestraʼs vocabulary. The applause was equally tepid, though the conductor and his players won back the audienceʼs hearts with a lovingly felt encore of Dvořákʼs G flat Humoresque, a more fitting close for the composerʼs namesake festival.

Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
© Petra Hajská

If the opening and closing concerts of this yearʼs Dvořákʼs Prague were lackluster affairs, much of what came in between was superb. The Czech Philharmonic, now a must-see with Semyon Bychkov on the podium, offered bracing excerpts from its Tchaikovsky Project. Zubin Mehta led the Israel Philharmonic in a mesmerizing performance of Mahler's Third. Gil Shaham curated a sparkling chamber series and joined PKF – Prague Philharmonia for a version of Dvořákʼs Violin concerto in A minor that left even locals, who have heard the piece dozens of times, shaking their heads in wonder and amazement. And hardcore enthusiasts could hardly do better than the all-star cast that brought Dvořákʼs forgotten opera Král a uhlíř (King and Collier) back to life.

How much further can the Dvořák umbrella be stretched? Next yearʼs 20th anniversary edition of the festival should provide some intriguing answers.