Rubato is a most deceptive word. Often employed to describe the charisma a conductor yields to an orchestra, it comes from the Italian word for ‘robbed’ to mean a musical interpretation where the rhythmic measures indicated in the score are stolen. The conductor can abscond with them and lead them from their stasis on another, occasionally sinuous path. This was a concert where we learnt about its malleable abilities the way we learn of atoms’ various densities across different materials in chemistry at school.

Paavo Järvi © Ixi Chen
Paavo Järvi
© Ixi Chen

Beginning with the UK première of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Flamma, Paavo Järvi delivered a sequence of staunch and thick throbbing vibratos in repetitive string motifs. Flamma is intriguing as a work. Though it contains an unexpected and palpable contrast between creepy eeriness on high strings and the besieging underbelly of cellos and double basses, its symphonic body goes against the concept it purports to manifest. The programme notes imply the piece is to be made of “dancing, overlapping waves… suggesting the flickering, malevolent energy of flames”. While “malevolent energy” easily makes its way to the ear, it is a more manic and obsessive one: a violence we associate more with the contrivance of sociopaths than the innate bouncing of red flecks of fire. The texture is much thinner in the first violins, often delegated a very high-pitched, slender sound, than it is in the grouchy and uglier throb of their much lower counterparts. Thus we can hear the difference between meagre strokes of flame – those that approach the roof of any fireplace more closely – and corrosive and engulfing balls that are stirred-up over the logs below. Apart from that Järvi, with a fixedly jerky rhythm, perseverated to show the work’s homophonic nature. For, with the exception of some invasive scurrying on strings, its nature inhabits precisely that quality.

Switching to the realm of Mozart, Järvi stretched the composer out into a more Beethovenian era – from the rubato perspective. In the Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, the molecules in Järvi’s rhythms were not packed into the dense, unmoving clans that constitute the atoms of a metal – as they are often are across Mozart performances. Instead we heard emblems of a slightly larger range of periods. The end of the last movement vaguely resembled the feisty and accumulative tempo of the close of Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture; other softer, more eventual phrases on strings vanished slowly, lingering the way a cloak elegantly disappears from a stage when a ballet dancer gently draws it into the wings.

At the same time there were two major characters in this Sinfonia concertante: the violinist and viola player. The former turned her instrument into a diffident lady of the times – strolling and equipped with a parasol. Vilde Frang’s timbre on the violin was sombre and painfully shy – and could equally veer into capricious, argumentative territory. What was especially salient was her divergence of vibrato across just one long drawn-out trill; opening and closing in width in restrained, delicate measures and simultaneously offering an elegant diminuendo. While Lawrence Power’s viola would creep into the fold with ominous dynamics, Frang’s violin held a hypnotic potency that shifted one’s mind off the orchestra. Her stylistics embody a variegation of dynamics and tempi that is both almost unheard of and unheard in today’s times.

Then came the ultimate experiment in the placement of rubato atoms: Brahms’ Second Symphony. With the exception of a handful of moments of muffled brass and slightly delayed entrances or ends, every instrumental texture here was a glutinous one. Where the strings felt safe, the brass crunched onto them; staccatos were punchy attacks, timpani were zealously uproarious, and all usage of trombones as heralds was superbly declamatory. There were also some unexpected pauses prior to the most piquant chords and speeds that began quickly and then slowed down – only to once more accelerate. A little while into the second movement, it became apparent that this was not so much a choice for one or two phrases but an artistic approach in itself; one where the tempi swerved and yet remained contained in a matter that was stretchy but not quite elastic. Like a paper Chinese lantern, this length could easily extend when pulled – and then restore itself to the moderate stance of the norm. There was a spark and a ferocity to it, but not the kind that could propel a Catherine wheel.

And so our ears met with these different contours through the evening; forms which contained differently disposed atoms. There was enough room for them to move and move they did, somewhat. But otherwise this concert proved rubato’s clear enjoyability without the ample exploitation of it; demonstrating to the listener its ripe potential rather than its summit.