Monday 27 April 2009

The RSNO bid the Festival Theatre farewell (hopefully) with Jarvi, Bruckner and Dvorak

This year's Royal Scottish National Orchestra season has suffered somewhat, owing to the ongoing problems at the Usher Hall. So much so that Sunday's concert was the final Edinburgh gig (the next two, which were to have been at the Usher Hall, had to be shelved, but so late in the day that no alternative venue could be found). It's a pity, as the resulting season finale was something of a damp squib.

Neeme Jarvi has a long history with the RSNO, so it's perhaps unsurprising to find that one of his two conductor sons, Kristjan, is now working with them. I've been curious to hear him since he recently recorded Bernstein's Mass, a favourite work of mine.

He led off with Dvorak's Scherzo capriccioso. This was fine enough, but lacked something. What that something was became clear in the electric final minutes - where had that energy been before? Early on there were also too many fluffed horn notes (and in general the section's sound was a little woolly, though this may be down to the unsuitable acoustic of the Festival Theatre, it's not quite properly hung acoustic curtain notwithstanding).

This was followed by a new trumpet concerto, well a Divertimento macchiato, and the source of perhaps the most pretentious and uninformative programme note it has ever been my misfortune to read, written by the composer himself, one Kurt Schwertsik. I can't adequately describe it, so I'll give you a flavour:

Good news from Italy: you can have your coffee, your milk macchiato.

Why not a divertimento macchiatto?: it sounds moderately stylish...

Why? Well, neither in the programme, nor with the piece, does he make the case. It continues in much the same vein. (The interesting punctuation is as printed.) The note says nothing about the number or nature of the movements and nor, really, can I, since I lost count. It was, frankly, a dull and uninspired piece. I don't recall having encountered Schwertsik before, and based on this I have not the slightest desire to deepen my acquaintance. But, you may say, surely it was worth it to hear trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, whose biography modestly proclaims him the "greatest trumpet soloist today". As regular readers will be aware, this instantly got him off on the wrong foot with me: I dislike any sentence that contains the phrase "greatest blank": I find the notion silly and pointless. The RSNO point out to me that this label was coined by The Times; maybe, but he put it in the first sentence of his biography. However, given such a description I would expect to be blown away. I wasn't. His sound was not particularly crisp or clean and was rather thin. I felt the extended cadenza that closed the work showed him up. The sound was good at the loudest volume, but much less so in the quieter moments. If I compare what I heard from him to the calibre of the trumpet solo given by (I presume) Hannes Laubin of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in the opening of Mahler's fifth (review here), that was trumpet playing that took my breath away, this wasn't. In fairness, that is a great work and this wasn't, and the two situations aren't comparable. Even allowing for all that, I was not as impressed. At the end of his programme note the composer says:

I expressed the fierce hope that there is more to my music than meets the ear.

If wishing only made it so, but not to these ears there isn't.

The second half was Bruckner's sixth symphony. Here Jarvi finds himself in tricky territory. In the first place it's one of my favourites, and much underrated amongst the canon. Secondly, the last time I heard it was as part of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Bruckner cycle, and the conductor then was one Donald Runnicles. Jarvi was not in the same league and was not particularly close. His conducting style is rather more of the flouncing style (think Michael Tilson Thomas) than I care for. Often, the orchestra were a little too loud and lacking in clarity (again, much of this may be down to the venue). However, he seemed to sap every phrase of the drama and poetry that it should possess. The slow movement was taken much too slowly and lost momentum as a result, feeling almost stop start: where was the beauty? Similarly, a sense of the dramatic was missing from the scherzo. The finale underwhelmed. As with several of Bruckner's works (the fourth is another good example), the most memorable themes come before the last movement, as such it requires real magic on the podium to ensure the finale doesn't feel like you're being short changed. Jarvi, unlike Runnicles or Jochum, was unable to locate anything along those lines.

In short, it was not the way I would have chosen to end the season. Having said that, I seemed to be very much in the minority amongst the audience. Next year, hopefully, we'll be free of acoustic issues. I say hopefully, since walking past the Usher Hall lately I have my doubts it will be ready on time, so watch this space.

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