The last time I had the chance to hear Neeme Järvi at the helm of the RSNO, Sibelius was also on the programme. On that occasion, at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, he gave us a superbly structured and powerfully dark account of the fourth symphony.
On Friday it was the turn of the suite of incidental music from Pelléas et Mélisande. From the start, many of the same hallmarks were present. The RSNO were on their finest form, most notably evident in the wonderfully rich and evocative string tone they produced. I always find Sibelius one of the most visually evocative composers, and this was certainly the case with Järvi who produced sounds to almost rival some of my favourite recordings in this respect (I'm thinking of Bernstein's incomparably textured late Vienna performances); the sublime, rapid, shimmering bowing at the end of the first movement was a particularly good example. Throughout, Järvi opted for a gentle pace, the whole account weighing in at around thirty minutes. Yet never did it drag, quite the contrary, one could happily have listened to more, much more.
After the interval it was a slightly different kettle of fish: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, in a novel arrangement by Henk de Vlieger. The word arrangement possibly conjures up expectations of something more radically unusual than was actually the case. In point of fact, the work is essentially just an hour long abridgement of the opera, sans voices (Järvi chose generally brisk tempi, especially in the opening, bringing it in a little shorter than that).
Certainly they played it very well and there were some glorious moments from the brass and elsewhere as Wagner's music resonated richly around the Usher Hall. The trouble is, I'm just not convinced by the idea underlying the piece. I think Wagner in concert works best when you have purely orchestral chunks, such as Siegfried's funeral march or the various preludes. Things get more problematic when you have vocal music without the voices (though in some cases, such as The Ride of the Valkyries and the Good Friday music it works so well that even your reviewer can forget the vocal parts exist [edited due to my error, pointed out by the arranger - see comments below]). Take, for example, the passionate act two scene between the titular lovers, without their delirious defiance of the march or time, punctuated by Brangäne's warnings, if feels somehow hollow, no matter how well it is played, which, under Järvi was very well indeed. The programme note remarks that "secondary matters, such as the singing sailors.... are not included", which seems a bizarre comment. Fair enough, excise them due to not wanting a choir, but they provide some wonderful music and a very important function of jolting the lovers back to reality at the end of act one after the potions have been consumed. Apparently, next time we see this team together, they'll be giving us de Vlieger's treatment of Meistersinger. I can't help wishing it was more Sibelius instead, why not a whole cycle, or at least a Kullervo?
Both pieces featured long and prominent cor anglais solos and in both Zoe Kitson performed superbly, with a wonderful tone and no fluffed notes, providing another of the evening's highlights.
Those with spotify, who fancy a taste of what de Vlieger does, can have a listen to his version of The Ring, as recorded by Järvi and the RSNO.