The opening of Henri Dutilleux’s Symphony no. 1, with its distinctive pizzicato opening full of tension and curiosity, opened the concert not with a bang but rather a seductive lure. The gradual building of orchestral forces in the opening movement, demonstrating Dutilleux’s supreme skill in orchestration, was evoked with excellent nuance by the Orchestre de Paris, contrasted with the sultry octave rises in the strings that follow. Whilst a confident string section is something to be desired by every conductor, it must be nonetheless carefully measured and controlled so as not to overcrowd the music and dominate those passages reserved for the brass and woodwind. Unfortunately, this was an issue on more than one occasion.

Paavo Järvi © Ixi Chen
Paavo Järvi
© Ixi Chen

Despite these slight lapses, conductor Paavo Järvi’s orchestral control was nonetheless evident, made all the more impressive by his stage presence: as a conductor, Järvi is proof that movement is not everything. Through his minimal movements, Järvi is able to bring forth an entire section of the orchestra with a slight raise of his arm, or indeed silence one with a flick of his hand. Such conducting proves not only a close attention on behalf of the conductor, but also of the orchestra, following Järvi’s every move with undivided attention, up to the symphony’s final movement, fading away into the very same silent distance from whence came the opening. It has been well over 20 years since this symphony was performed by the Orchestre de Paris, but despite this (or perhaps precisely because of this) the work has fortunately not lost its excitement and ability to arouse curiosity, whether through its formal innovation or impressive melodic development.

Like the Dutilleux, Bartók’s epic Violin Concerto no. 2 is another work lacking its share of the Parisian concert limelight. Last performed in 2001 – again by tonight’s soloist Gil Shaham – the work’s return is a welcome sight. Written in the midst of growing threats of fascism in 1937–38, Bartók’s concerto is full of grand, eloquent gestures and passionate Hungarian chutzpah, rooted in the Verbunkos style of Hungarian folk music. With the unbridled excitement of Gil Shaham, evident from both his playing and his frequent, endearing smiles, such passion was plain for all to enjoy. It is always a pleasure to watch Shaham perform, as he appeared unafraid on stage, smiling and grinning throughout despite the technical demands of Bartók’s composition that would rattle the bows of any violinist. The cockiness and overt lyricism of the opening movement was assured by Shaham against an orchestra clearly careful not too overshadow the solitary voice of the violin.

Due to the work’s composition dates, references to fascism have been evoked and searched for, and the work has been coloured by such comparisons. The concerto’s apparent gaiety is therefore taken as symbolic defiance against the looming political darkness. And yet, the second movement, with its seven variations, hints at an underlying menace, evoked superbly by the orchestra. As it moved from one variation to the next, Shaham’s playing became evocative of the distinctive moods of each variation. From the languishing opening, the music moves through menace, mystery, fury, searching, playfulness and sorrow, each characterised by Shaham, with a perfect dose of vibrato throughout allowing for the vibrant emotions to come through without the undesired warble of strong vibratos when playing in the higher positions on the violin. After the spectacular final movement, with its barrelling finale (hammered home by the seven double basses in the orchestra), Shaham’s last note had barely been silenced before the first “bravo” had already been shouted: bravo indeed. It is said that opposites attract, and it must be noted that Järvi and Shaham make a praiseworthy match: Shaham’s unrestrained excitement is well measured against Järvi’s controlled and watchful presence. After Bartók, the third movement of Bach’s Partita no.3 in E major proved to be a refreshing palate-cleanser before another B of classical music was brought on stage: Beethoven.

Whilst Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 is certainly no stranger to the average concert-going crowd, it has nonetheless been performed no more than half a dozen times at the Salle Pleyel. Gratitude to Järvi, therefore, whose career has repeatedly focused on Beethoven’s symphonies. Despite the excellent performance by Järvi and the orchestra, it is here that I must raise an issue. Although each work in the programme represents a bold step forward in the composer’s contemporary musical surroundings, it is difficult to appreciate such a step in Beethoven’s work when it is preceded by Dutilleux and Bartók. One wonders, therefore, whether the programme would not have benefited a performance in reverse order: starting with the Beethoven, moving to the Bartók before finishing with the impressive Dutilleux symphony, rather than a concert progressing steadily backwards in time, moving from the avant-garde back to the late classical (and with it a reduction in orchestral force). Perhaps merely a question of taste, this issue did not prevent Beethoven’s final movement, full of teasing and exuberance, from bringing applause and cheers from the audience.