It was the percussion which took the starring role as Haydn and Nielsen engaged in a lively skirmish at the Royal Festival Hall. In his “Military” Symphony, Haydn holds his Turkish Janissary battery back until the second movement, where drum, cymbal and triangle join the fray in a display of pomp. Nielsen’s percussion is less polite. In the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, he instructs his snare-drummer to disrupt the music “at all costs”. Paavo Järvi urged the Philharmonia on in bracing performances, allied to a spirited account of Nielsen’s Flute Concerto.

Paavo Järvi © Julia Bayer
Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer
Järvi’s no-nonsense approach to Haydn was set from the very opening Adagio to the first movement of the Symphony no. 100 in G major. No lugubrious introduction here, but a free flowing unfolding of ideas setting up the sprightly Allegro which followed. There were concessions to historically informed practices, including hard timpani sticks and period trumpets, balanced by a substantial string section (12 first violins) which nevertheless danced light on its feet. Järvi’s tempi were slick; the Minuet was clipped and brisk, the Trio section tripping along attractively. In many ways, this was a very nuanced reading, Järvi bringing out some of the inner lines in the Allegretto second movement, such as those for the bassoons, while the opening statement of the finale was repeated at an even quieter dynamic. The barricades of the percussion department were defended in a polite, restrained way, especially the neat playing of the drum, beater in one hand, and what looked like a bunch of twigs in the other for the counterbeat. This was Haydn in brusque, vigorous mood, possibly lacking a little in humour.

It’s always fun when an orchestral principal player takes to the concerto spotlight. Samuel Coles, the Philharmonia’s fine Principal Flute, was the excellent soloist in Nielsen’s fiendish Flute Concerto. The cameraderie was tangible, Coles warmly greeted by his colleagues at the end, while he, in turn, was generous in acknowledging solo contributions from the orchestra. Nielsen denies his flautist a flashy cadenza, instead engaging his soloist in a series of dialogues, first accompanied by timpani, then by clarinet (the excellent Mark van der Wiel), later by violas and horn. Balances between Coles and the Philharmonia were good. Pitching the flute against the might of a 20th century orchestra often spells trouble – but Nielsen manages it better than most. Coles nobly held his own, even when pitched against interruptions from bass trombone and timpani, his piccolo-like trills a call to arms. A sense of the pastoral is never far away in Nielsen and Järvi encouraged the strings’ radiant glow. This happy-go-lucky concerto was performed in just that spirit.

Where the percussion had erred on the polite side in Haydn, no such restraint was required in Nielsen’s Fifth, where – after a frisson of tension was introduced by tambourine – the snare-drummer introduced his curt motif, eventually battering away furiously. Van der Wiel’s eloquent clarinet solo held sway as the drummer beat the retreat, hastening off-stage. Järvi maintained the tension superbly in the second movement, tuba and bass trombone singing out defiantly. With great vigour, he drew the symphony, and this fine concert, to an ebullient close.