Monday 13 August 2007

Alarming Sibelius

Well, the 2007 festival and the tenure of Jonathan Mills is off to a flying start (though I personally opted out of Candide). My festival experience began on Saturday with a concert from Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and a very poorly sold on at that (the hall was perhaps one third full). Perhaps as on paper this was not a blockbuster: opening with two pieces by Estonian Heino Eller (1887-1970) and closing with a ballet from Falla (all three works unknown to me). What might be termed the headline work was itself not exactly an easy one, Sibelius's magical fourth lack the glory and accessibility of works like the second or the fifth. Still, those who went elsewhere were missing out.

Eller is not a household name, and on the basis of Dawn and Twilight this is not entirely unfair. They were nice enough, but rather had the feel of film music. However, the ensemble played them very well, and there was at times a wonderful weight. There also seemed to be hints of both Sibelius and Wagner, which made this interesting programatically.

The Sibelius that followed was something else. There was a real depth to the superbly played opening chords. The quality of the strings and the principle cello was particularly high. Jarvi's reading had a very dark feel to it, yet not in the edgy sense that often is present. He had good control of the orchestra and great delicacy at times. He also provided a strong sense of structure (something that eludes many interpreters) and held the tension well. What a shame then that as the magnificent third movement reached its climax the Usher Hall's fire alarms sounded (I am told by those who were there on Sunday that the hall currently has problems with running water to boot). Jarvi persisted for several minutes before, by dint of the fade up of the house lights and the recorded announcements, he was forced to admit defeat. Despite the poorly filled hall, it still took around 5 minutes to evacuate the upper circle which once more made me glad it wasn't a real fire as I'm sure were one to occur, anyone on the upper floor would be in trouble (presumably the will be addressing this when the hall is refurbished).

It is doubly annoying as this is the second time this has happened in the last year. Towards the end of the wonderful Mackerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra reading of Haydn's Creation last October, we were forced out of the building. And I am told the alarm kept going off during last year's opening concert (Electra).

Still, 20 minutes later we were back in our seats and the Jarvi picked up where he had been so rudely interrupted. It is a testament to the professionalism of those involved that they resumed with every bit the passion and the inconvenience was soon but a memory. He capped the reading with a fine finale. Rather than bursting out immediately and dominating, the fourth movement's brightness emerged only slowly and never completely. The closing bars were suitably dark and melancholy.

After the interval, we finished with Falla's Three Cornered Hat. Like the 1812 overture or Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, this felt like something of a party piece: tremendous fun but you probably wouldn't take it to your desert island. Victoria Simmonds proved an engaging soloist, not least the Latin passion with which she stormed onto the stage to over the top fanfares. She was accompanied by interestingly scored clapping from the orchestra. However, by the end it had slightly overstayed its welcome and there were rather too many false finishes.

All in all, a solid start to the year's festivities.

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