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NSO, Neeme Järvi, and Baiba Skride

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Violin Concertos, L. Mordkovitch, Scottish National Orchestra, N. Järvi
(Chandos, 2009)

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Symphony No. 2, Royal Philharmonic, J. Barbirolli
(Chesky, 1990)
Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Friday evening, January 15, 2016, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, famed Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi and the National Symphony Orchestra offered the second of its three performances of a highly attractive program, consisting in the 5 Pieces for String Orchestra by Heino Eller, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Jean Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

As a Sibelius fanatic, I was impelled to attend to hear the third item on the program but was surprised to find that the major treat of the evening was the Prokofiev and the exquisite playing by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride in her NSO debut.

However, first things first. The opening, brief 5 Pieces by Eller is a charming, lovely string composition that, while apparently redolent of Estonian folk tunes, could easily keep company with comparable string works by English composers like Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Benjamin Britten. Its plush string writing has the warmth of musical mahogany, and it was appropriately upholstered by the sound of the NSO strings.

Prokofiev wanted the violinist to play the beginning of his Violin Concerto No. 1 “as if in a dream.” That is exactly how Skride softly entered with the Stradivarius she was playing. It was with a feminine softness, and also a purity of line and crystalline clarity. This concerto does not have a cadenza for its soloist, properly speaking. But since the soloist plays almost nonstop throughout all three movements, it is almost more appropriate to think of the concerto as a giant cadenza with orchestral accompaniment. In any case, it was magic time. Skride played with unfailing eloquence, energy and refinement (and spot-on accuracy) through all the various complexities that Prokofiev packed in for the soloist, cadenza or not. It was a joy to hear someone playing at this level on an instrument this beautiful.

At the work’s 1923 premiere in Paris, Prokofiev reported of the critics that “some of them commented not without malice on its ‘Mendelssohnisms.’” What those disappointed critics were referring to are the parts of the work that capture the kind of crepuscular, murmuring enchantment that Mendelssohn was so expert at distilling. Unless you are looking for a catastrophe in a boiler factory, this is one of the work’s highly attractive assets. Not only did Skride play these with tremendous delicacy and charm, but so did the orchestral accompaniment. And here one must applaud Järvi, a Prokofiev expert, for keeping everything in perfect balance throughout the three movements. The chimerical fleetness with which all departments in the NSO played deserves huzzahs.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Jarvi’s insouciance gets results from the NSO (Washington Post, January 15)
Järvi began the Sibelius Second briskly enough that, were he a less expert conductor, I might’ve worried that he was going to rush the fence, to use an equestrian expression. Of course, he didn’t. However, this was an interpretation based more on the power of the piece, than its passion. It was more like a cold splash of Nordic water, which can be very bracing, than it was nature mysticism. To catch the sense of my meaning listen, if you can, to John Barbirolli’s 1962 performance with the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky label). Barbirolli catches a sense of what the music is coming out of so that when there is an orchestral pause, it is a silence pregnant with sound. In Järvi’s performance, it was just a pause, period. It was not as expressive because the underlying mysticism was not there. However, the comparison with Barbirolli is not meant as a criticism, but a contrast. There is more than one way to do the Second Symphony. Järvi was consistent in his, which produced a lot of excitement. I should add that, in the finale, he combined power with passion. Overall, I was impressed but not moved. The NSO effectively draped the great sheets of brass and string sound across the Concert Hall to thrilling effect.

The only dismaying feature of the evening was the sparse audience attendance. With this much ear candy on offer, where were they?

This concert repeats this evening.

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