The latest concert in the Discover Carl Nielsen series curated by Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia Orchestra captivated the ear with music that was strikingly original, magisterial and downright quirky. That might aptly summarise Nielsen’s Symphony no. 2 “The Four Temperaments”, but it could just as easily encapsulate Haydn’s Symphony no. 102 in B flat major, written little more than a century earlier and which began the concert.
In the Haydn, Järvi drew a wonderfully energetic response from the Philharmonia, its opening Vivace brimmed with vitality, and period-instrument trumpets and timpani brought additional frisson. Phrasing and articulation were crisply delivered and Samuel Coles’ mellifluous flute teasingly ushered in the movement’s false recapitulation. Järvi enjoys sharply contrasted dynamics (as heard in May with his idiosyncratic account of no. 83), and this performance, with the softest of pianissimos in the Adagio, was no exception. The Minuet was all swirling elegance, with Haydn saving the best to last in a whirlwind Finale. Here, Järvi and the Philharmonia struck gold, finding every nugget of fun in Haydn’s effervescent score.
Leonidas Kavakos then joined the Philharmonia for Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, and gave an expansive performance that will linger long in the memory. This Greek violinist has already won numerous garlands, as well as 2104 Gramophone Artist of the Year, and it’s not hard to hear why. Technically faultless, this was a performance where Kavakos combined beauty of tone and deeply-felt utterance, communicating both with ease. Never pushing too hard in assertive passages, and always casting a clean line through its lyricism, this account verged on the dreamy such was its leisurely tempo and sense of tranquillity. Only an unmusical pedant might have taken issue with the dynamic and tempo fluctuations in the opening movement, but the pacing was superbly controlled and the balance between soloist and orchestra perfectly achieved. For the cadenza’s flights of fancy (Joachim’s) Kavakos held us in the palm of his hand.
Set in motion by Gordon Hunt’s stylish oboe playing, the Adagio was even more broadly conceived, but mannered in its halting momentum. The Finale was powerful but not forced, its rhythms taut yet fleet of foot. Under Järvi’s clear direction this was an exceptional performance – a superb partnership from world-class violinist and orchestra. Afterwards Kavakos gave us the “Gavotte en Rondeau” from Bach’s E major Partita (BWV1006) poised and classy.
Then it was Nielsen’s Second Symphony, inspired, supposedly, following a day imbibing in a country pub where he had encountered a crude painting depicting the ancient Greek ‘Four Temperaments’ (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine) that were to provide titles for the symphony’s four movements.
The opening was suitably irascible, with brass players not holding back in their cavorting. At about 10 minutes Järvi’s account was more expansive than others, but nonetheless compelling in its rhythmic bite. In the phlegmatic waltz that forms the second movement there was a tendency to apply the breaks once too often; its languor appropriate and allowing plenty of orchestral detail but giving little sense of sweep. This expressive approach continued in the Andante malincolico, its trajectory now beautifully shaped, with the Philharmonia strings on fine form. The optimism of the Finale was well caught, its mayhem nicely captured by uninhibited brass and robust timpani playing, the whole capped by a magisterial march. With Nielsen as good as this I look forward to the next instalment of the Discover Carl Nielsen series.
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