Sunday 20 February 2011

Disappointing Sibelius from Järvi and the RSNO

There aren't nearly enough Sibelius symphonies on the programmes of Scotland's main orchestras. How nice, then, to see his final two programmed together by the RSNO under the baton of Kristjan Järvi. The last time I heard a Sibelius symphony from the orchestra it was the 4th with his father Neeme at the 2007 Edinburgh festival, and very fine that was too.

In the end, though, it proved rather a shame we were getting Järvi jnr as opposed to snr. The 6th was the more problematic of the two, suffering more than anything from a feeling of being rush. Where was the heartbreaking beauty of those opening bars? More crucially, thoughout there was an absence of the evocative textures and atmospheres so rife in Sibelius's writing. Normally I find Sibelius to be one of the most visually stimulating composers, not so here. Gone too was the satisfyingly broad sweep of a great reading.

The 7th was more successful. However, before that can be discussed there is the question of the mistaken decision to play the two works continuously without a break. This, it seems, is an increasingly common practice (Rattle did it during his cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic last year). Common or not, in my view it is utterly mistaken. True, tonally the two works do run into each other reasonably well, but there are two major problems. The first was exemplified by the reaction of the audience who, at the start of the unexpected 5th movement turned to whisper to each other, rustled through their programmes or, as in the case of the gentleman in front of me, counted off the movements on his fingers in confusion. All told, it rather spoilt those magical opening bars. True, they probably should have read their programmes more carefully, though the RSNO might like to remember that not everyone buys a programme, nor should they have to. Nor do they all read the orchestra's twitter feed where the decision was also announced. This is one case where speaking to the audience is actually a good and important idea. It's a pity too that nowhere did the programme actually give the rational that underpins this decision (assuming there is one - apparently it was made clear if you attended the pre-concert talk, but most don't).

The second problem is more serious. Sibelius's 7th symphony is an extraordinary composition, not least for the distance it covers and the amount it coveys in but twenty minutes. To tack it on to the back of the 6th seems to lower it to being a mere adjunct and this diminution is a mistake. The 7th is the kind of work that could stand alone in a half, an entire concert even (more satisfyingly even than the shorter Beethoven symphonies did in the legendary 2006 Mackerras cycle).

That said, Järvi's reading of it was better than his 6th. For a start it was much better paced and had a good flow, not here the series of miniatures that the work can prove in the wrong hands. He got a nice balance to the wonderful trombone theme too. And yet, it still left me rather cold. By the end, it didn't feel anything like we'd travelled anything like the distance we should have. The orchestral textures, fine though the playing was, were equally flat - where was the feel of icy winds that a well played Sibelius string sound can evoke? In short, there were constant reminders of what was missing.

It was a pity, not just because I'd had high hopes, but also because the first half of the concert had proved much more successful: a performance of Shostakovich's 1st violin concerto with Mikhail Simonyan. Here Järvi proved an excellent judge of orchestral accompaniment, ensuring the soloist was never drowned out during the lengthy quiet passages. Simonyan himself played well too. They proved equally adept in the excitement of second and final movements.

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