When Neeme Järvi made his UK debut in 1980, conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, he was unknown in the west. That didn’t last long.
The Leningrad-trained Estonian charmed everyone with his light touch in rehearsal and spontaneity in performance. Within a flash he was the RSNO’s principal conductor, recording everything in sight. Then, as suddenly as he had arrived, he left. Some conductors – especially those with a brilliant technique – have low attention spans, just like some audiences.
When Järvi made his long-awaited return to Scotland at the end of last week, starting with a concert in Perth’s gorgeous new hall, it was like a convention of Lovers Reunited. The conductor, more measured of movement but with no less a twinkle in the eye, had exactly the same impact as in 1980.
The musicians ate out of his hands. The audience smiled. It remains one of the conundrums of music how some concerts appear out of a magic hat like this, while others, usually the result of much more effort, have so much less impact.
Not that Järvi’s programme sounded fly-by- night. Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, the first of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Legends, was seamlessly knitted together; the colours were ravishingly blended, the crescendo was unerringly placed.
And what distinguished Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was not the uncharismatic solo performance but Järvi’s courteous accompaniments and the way the music took off in the tutti.
Then came Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. If we can draw any lesson from the composer’s centenary, it’s the importance of maintaining the music’s ambiguity – of which Järvi, a product of the Mravinsky era in Leningrad, has an instinctive command.
He is incapable of making anything sound “prepared”, but the first movement climaxes were shatteringly powerful, the scherzo sounded like a hurricane, the third movement was dominated by a galumphing waltz – very Soviet-era – and the finale teetered on the brink of the banal.
Hollow triumphalism, or devastatingly sincere? It’s performances such as this that reveal Shostakovich’s stature. ★★★★★
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