Beethoven: Symphony No.1 in C major
Violin Concerto in D major
Symphony No.5 in C minor
Hilary Hahn, violin
Deutsche Kammer-Philharmonie Bremen
Paavo Järvi, conductor
Punchy, zingy, raspy, and rushed. By far the most erratic concert of the summer season was delivered at last night’s Prom where Paavo Järvi brought his small band of Bremen town musicians (that is, the well-regarded Deutsche Kammer-philharmonie Bremen). When Haydn made his second celebrated visit to London in 1794, he employed an orchestra of up to eighty musicians playing before crowds of perhaps a thousand. So it’s pure affectation to ask forty musicians to play two of Beethoven’s most powerful works, the Violin Concerto and Symphony no. 5, in the yawning spaces of Albert Hall, which seats over six thousand. In the name of period style we were treated last night to three double basses, all but unheard beyond the first few rows. They might as well have sawed the air.
Period orchestras like to add loaded words to their names like “revolutionaire” and “enlightenment,” implying that modern forces are uninformed and reactionary. But as the eminent musical writer Charles Rosen argues in his essay against doubtful authenticity, why should we assume that the first performance of a work was the best? Progress happens (Beethoven hounded piano manufacturers all his life, for example, to get them to provide more powerful instruments, the better to execute the music he heard in his head). The first conductor to face the orchestra instead of the audience was Wagner, but one doesn’t see any maestros on the period front turning back around.
Behind its claims to purity, period practice is full of frippery and arbitrary fooling around. In the Violin Concerto Järvi asked for the usual rise and fall of expression, but in the Fifth he wanted the hairpin dynamics and scaled fortes of Baroque practice. At other moments he channeled the spirit of Mengelberg, adding sudden slow downs, and in the second movement of the Fifth Beehtoven’s piano marking (p) was rendered as a barely audible pianissimo (ppp). The slow movements of the First and Fifth symphonies were played one beat to a bar, but the slow movement of the Violin Concerto proceeded at the normal pace. Oh well. In an age of “It’s all good,” the conductor could have added two ophicleides and a kazoo, and the audience would have cheered just as loudly.
But I come not to bury Caesar. I was interested in Järvi, son of the stalwart veteran, Neeme Järvi. He’s a hot commodity, with big orchestras in Cincinnati and Frankfurt, and he’s recording a complete Beethoven cycle with his Bremen band. I can’t get a clear image of him in my mind, though. There are a batch of bland recordings on one hand, followed by two recent ones that are superb: a Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Nicholas Angelich thundering in the grand old style and a Mahler Second full of original touches and convincing emotional immensity. Donning the coat of a period conductor, Järvi is alert and often dramatic. This isn’t the mechanical time beating of old-style period types like Gardiner and Norrington but as I’ve pointed out, his gestures are arbitrary and all over the place.
When Hilary Hahn entered the picture, the orchestra was tiny – eight violins left the stage – but she barely adapted to anything historically informed. We got to hear full vibrato from her and none at all from the orchestra. This made Hahn stand out like a nightingale among sparrows; no virtuoso is going to object to that. I imagine it was she who insisted on keeping the slow movement actually slow. The Beethoven concerto demands imagination, passion, and intellectual force. Hahn seemed to shrink in such a bijou setting, however, and although she played with lovely tone and real musicality, the only passion came during the cadenzas (and ironically, in her tiny encore, a Bach gigue played with vibrato and amplitude). She made herself small-voiced most of the time, and after a while I forgot to pay attention.
The real problem with period style, when it comes to major Beethoven, isn’t that he gets pulled back into the Classical era but that he gets pulled down. The ordinary emotional range of these performances was too confining, and it didn’t help that the Bremen wind players were quite ordinary, too. A lot of solos came and went. As for the opening work, the Symphony no. 1, it crackled with life and felt more right than anything else. Of course the reading looked backward rather than forward, but that’s par now for most young and youngish conductors, who seem intimidated by the suspicion that they are too romantic, or that they have dared to play Beethoven with a full heart. At least Paavo Järvi isn’t tepid, and he must be satisfied setting his heart aside until it’s time for Brahms and Mahler. I can only ask, when it’s so easy to shed your skin from one composer to the next, how much you really feel for any of them.