There was an unfamiliar orchestra performing this evening – though it played at the exact same concert hall in which it’s resident. Coated in the varnish of a blinding gleam, the Philharmonia Orchestra shone iridescently under the baton of the unstoppable Paavo Järvi. With three startlingly different guises to assume in pieces by Haydn, Beethoven and Nielsen, never once was it unmasked as one consistent entity. Instead there was a triplex of divergent journeys in this concert; all skewed in diagonal directions, never once criss-crossing.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Beginning with Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, the ear was immediately treated to a viscous, unpierceable tone. Fast changes in volume, texture and pace were pronounced and every instrumental section was accorded its proportional share of dominion. There was no brawling to be heard here between brass and strings; no accidental stumbling or possessive hold over long notes. Pizzicatos, as a single, fierce ensemble, could alternately be either dictatorial or celestial. Instances of call and response were contentious battle between high-pitched hysterics and lower-key grumbled grievances. While certain shorter, softer phrases could have emanated a more timid quality, the performance was as idiosyncratic an identifier of its writer as his own unwieldy way of drawing treble clefs.

Engaged to play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto were violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt. Here was an instance where differences in musical approach were most graspable. With a single thread of melody distributed to the soloists in rounds, it was easy to distinguish three contrasting takes on a unique musical line.

Christian Tetzlaff’s handling of both ensemble and solo sections was by far the most lyrical. Sweetened by lengthily-held notes both at the start and end of phrases, extremes of both loud and soft and excessive Romantic mellifluousness, Tetzlaff performed his part of the work as though it may have been a Rachmaninov vocalise. Where a need for choppy, disjointed chords arrived, Tetzlaff played melancholic, wispy triads, letting the cello supersede his playing with its raucous temperament. While there were appropriately diffident descending chromatics in the first movement and contemporaneous furore with the cello in the second, most executions of phrases were a little too accentuated in the wrong places, and sugared as to be like citrus.

Controlling the emotional register of this performance was cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. Assembled from a motley array of constituents, her performance reflected the Beethovenian course that runs the gamut of Classical to Romantic to presciently Modern and back to Romantic again. Certain grave chords were frenzied and surrendered to a beautiful lack of control in the first movement, only to be succeeded by slender subtleties of ppp. At the start of the second movement, Tetzlaff varied the melody’s pacing from tiptoe to trotting to escaping and then to retreating with fear. These examples of characterisation not only endowed the performance with the desired flairs of the composer, they allowed the listener to correlate some of its elements with the potential influence they could have cast on later 20th-century motifs.

Vogt’s piano playing experimented with a similar degree of variance; separating dainty arpeggios from the obtrusive, higher-pitched notes that unsettled them. All the while Järvi’s orchestra was never a backdrop; at times jubilant, at times defiant. Even the tremolo of the strings ran across a wide arc: loaded, brazen and primed for competition in one moment, soft as the sound of pencil shavings falling in the next.

Yet the most precious chemical combination came with a work that consists of the rawest materials – melodically speaking. Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony, the Sinfonia semplice, includes so many jarring moments, interrupted cadences, trombone blasts and dissonant disturbances that any subpar execution of it risks resembling an enlivened band of car-hooters in concert on a busy motorway. Here, however, each soloist, each band, every united pair of sections possessed an inalterable, congruent personality. In the first movement, a delicate tone on strings whose intention it was to sound flimsy and torpid began to little by little accumulate thickness and volume. Suddenly its thin texture went from embodying light clumps of snowdrops to resembling the fallen large layer of white on the ground. Across this horizon the ensemble allowed us to hear different birds – blackbirds on timely triangles and seagulls squawking from aberrant trumpets. The harmony may have been dissonant, yet the squiggles of this incoherent structure were not splashed across the page indiscriminately. They adhered to the shapes and the lines of Järvi’s preconceived stencils.

With the numberless intricacies that all of these pieces demanded, it would have been tempting for the orchestra to fold in and tumble. Instead the audience was introduced to real euphonic complication: challenges across three eras a gymnastic orchestra alone can handle. Järvi led the Philharmonia beautifully across these multifarious obstacles. The chaos easily became delectable.