Another instalment in Paavo Järvi’s Nielsen series formed the bulk of Thursday’s Philharmonia Orchestra concert, with a Haydn symphony thrown in almost as an afterthought. It was clear, however, that Järvi was just as much an enthusiast for Haydn as he was for Nielsen.

Paavo Järvi © Julia Bayer
Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer
From the beginning of the Symphony no. 83 in G minor, “La Poule”, it was apparent that Järvi had ideas of his own. An exaggerated diminuendo at the end of the first phrase was as striking as it was individual, and whilst Haydn gives no such direction it was an arresting opening and an indication of things to come. Along with these conspicuously emphasised dynamics, events hurtled by under Järvi’s well-judged tempi, without any loss of precision from polished string playing. There were further idiosyncrasies from Järvi in the Andante where diminuendos from violins virtually went off the sonar. The brisk tempo, not quite so appropriate here, caused a few intonation problems which now verged on the approximate. A single flute (Samuel Coles) chirruped away persuasively in the Minuet’s Trio where a quintet of solo strings, brought another instance of Järvi’s tinkering, and elegant support. The Finale was polished, its fleet-of-foot playing perfectly suited to Haydn’s delicate score.

Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra from 1928 is infrequently performed but made an illuminating partner for Haydn, not least in its classical-style phrasing and orchestration: strings, pairs of bassoons and horns, and the spicy addition of a snare drum. If the work itself failed to convince me of its merits – with its intriguing mix of acerbic and lyrical, poetic and puzzling – then the soloist, Mark van de Wiel, was compelling. Playing from memory, and with a clear affinity for the work, he took the concerto to his heart in a commanding performance. Control, beauty of tone and shapely phrasing (with notes beguilingly hanging in the air) were all present in this elusive work once described by Nielsen’s son-in-law as “from another planet”. Its determined snare drum interruptions were given with admiral self-control by Matt Prendergast but, at 24 minutes, the work seems overlong.

Not so with his Third Symphony (Sinfonia espansiva) boosted here by an expanded string section with full woodwind and brass, the latter providing plenty of richness. Its music unfolded naturally, with Jarvi keeping a weather eye on momentum, and allowing that glorious waltz tune near the end of the first movement to emerge triumphantly. The Andante was rendered sympathetically, its cloudless tranquillity beautifully evoked by smooth horns and warm-toned strings. To this pastoral landscape, left and right-positioned soprano (Lucy Knight) and baritone (Stephen Kennedy) soloists added their wordless contributions in a passage of inspired scoring.

Despite an attractive oboe arabesque at the start of the Allegretto, the third movement had its longeurs, not helped by Nielsen’s somewhat dry and, on occasion, academic style. Things picked up for the Finale, its stately main theme rendered with aplomb by wind and strings. It was interesting to hear violin “clucking” figures and finally make sense of the link to the Haydn. But this reminded me of Järvi’s earlier broad dynamic range – which could have been transferred to the Nielsen. Tempi could have been a notch faster in Nielsen’s Finale and the overall effect at the end left me wanting more drama – it was exciting but not thrilling.

****1