Flags of blue, black and white were waved enthusiastically around the Royal Albert Hall and with good reason. Estonia celebrates 100 years of independence this year and this concert marked the first time any Estonian orchestra had visited the BBC Proms. Paavo Järvi founded the Estonian Festival Orchestra seven years ago, resident at the Pärnu Music Festival and combining Estonians with players from top international orchestras Järvi conducts around the world. The results was an impressive debut, offering fresh, lively interpretations of appropriately Nordic-Baltic repertoire.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Estonian Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Paavo Järvi conducts the Estonian Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Flying the flag for Estonia was Arvo Pärt’s Symphony no. 3, a work dedicated to Paavo’s father, the indefatigable Neeme Järvi, who conducted the première in Tallinn in 1972. The Third predates Pärt’s tintinnabuli style but reflects his then fascination with plainchant and early polyphony. Pärt often treats the orchestra like a giant organ, particularly in the middle movement where strings and elegiac trumpet lead a sombre chant. Pärt paints in great blocks, like an aural Mondrian, focusing on combinations of instruments before switching to a completely different instrumental colour. Oboe and clarinet play in parallel until a theatrical tubular bell strike veers the focus away to the brass. Caliginous double basses were joined by cellos in the twilight before shafts of brass light pierced the cathedral windows. Most fearsome of all was a furious timpani assault, the composer briefly abandoning the dignified tread for a moment of high drama. To cheers, the 82-year old Pärt took his bow – and sent a hug to the entire audience – a modest figure, who practically leapt up the steps to return to his seat.

Arvo Pärt takes a bow with Paavo Järvi © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Arvo Pärt takes a bow with Paavo Järvi
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Rampaging across the fjords came Khatia Buniatishvili for an exciting performance of Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A minor… exciting, although not always for the right reasons. The EFO played this concerto with Elisabeth Leonskaja in Pärnu last week and I can’t imagine Leonskaja played it anything like this. There was an edge-of-the-seat atmosphere as Buniatishvili set off at an impatient gallop, Järvi often having to rein the tempo back. Despite plenty of eye contact, pianist and conductor seemed to play cat and mouse, the Georgian teasing with quixotic rubatos. Crouched over the keyboard, flicking back her black mane of hair, Buniatishvili’s cadenza was rhapsodic, with buttery pianissimos. The Estonian violins breathed dewy freshness into the Adagio but the finale sprinted out of sight on the verge of recklessness – Grieg’s trolls high on acid. As if to compensate, Buniatishvili’s encore was a Clair de lune so slow it nearly stalled.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Estonian Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Paavo Järvi conducts the Estonian Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Some performances of Sibelius’ mighty Fifth Symphony are hewn from granite or sculpted from marble. The Estonians’ account was carved from pine, crisp and fresh, surging with energy and athleticism. Järvi, pulling long, fluid baton shapes, encouraged supple string playing and splendid woodwind articulation. A cantabile bassoon crooned his song over swarming strings; grainy trumpets sent their rising figures aloft  joyously. Pizzicatos in the second movement landed softly like drops of melting snow rather than icy pin-pricks, while the finale’s great “swan theme” rocked nobly in the horns against spiccato double bass snaps. Invigorating stuff and the highlight of the evening, although the second encore, the Herd-maiden’s Dance from Hugo Alfven’s Mountain King, pushed it close, a high-spirited return for the trolls.

***11