If one could ignore the empty auditorium seats, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake the recent NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester program led by Paavo Järvi at the 2021 Hamburg International Music Festival for a pre-pandemic concert. Seen around the world via streaming technology, the musicians were formally attired, social distancing was minimally apparent, and there wasn’t a mask in sight. In the second half of the program, around 55 musicians produced a full, robust sound in Carl Nielsen’s agitated Second Symphony. Here we were treated to a dazzling brass section, and a terrific timpanist whose pace carried the moody masterpiece to a satisfying conclusion. But, of course, despite appearances, all the necessary Covid precautions were taken to make this fine production possible, proving that wonderful music can arise from restricted circumstances.

Paavo Järvi conducts at the Elbphilharmonie

Järvi was a pleasure to watch as he conducted the ensemble in Nielsen’s work, subtitled The Four Temperaments, which refers to four “humors” thought in the Middle Ages to dictate human behavior: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. Nielsen was reportedly much taken by a comic depiction of the four that he saw on an illustration, but there is little humor in this otherwise colorful, expressive work.

Conducting with a baton, Järvi presented an authoritative but easy-going presence, with a hint of a smile to suggest he really does enjoy his profession, and a twinkle in the eye. The NDR orchestra responded with a strong, dramatic performance which the conductor shaped into four distinct portraits of personality and physical types, the inspiration for some lovely solo passages and ensemble playing. What a treat to hear the oboe and English horn duet in the melancholy third movement.

The program opened with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for strings in C major, a favorite among orchestras during lockdown as it features just a single section. This is a sweeping work of uplifting sonorities, playful pizzicati and memorable tunes, as well as that familiar chorale which serves as introduction and conclusion.

Paavo Järvi conducts the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester

At a little over a half hour in length, this work always seems too long to me, but who would dare to edit Tchaikovsky’s resonant waves of sound, especially in the plummy-beige interior of Hamburg’s stately ship of a concert hall? Music and surroundings merged. The strands of lighting overhead reflected on the highly polished violins like falling stars. Among the strings, you can almost hear imaginings of a return to normalcy in the world’s concert halls later this year.

No wonder the musicians cheerfully applauded each other at the concert’s end, and Järvi accepted a bouquet of fresh spring flowers on behalf of an orchestra that clearly demonstrated its excellence and determination, while wishing a happy birthday (7th May) to the iconic Russian composer.


 This performance was reviewed from the Elbphilharmonie video stream