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Ionarts-at-Large: The 2018 Pärnu Music Festival

Pärnu Music Festival

Paavo Järvi & EFO At Pärnu Music Festival 2018 – © IMZ Media

In sunny-summery Pärnu, on Estonia’s south western coast, it is possible to wade through the Baltic Sea one moment, and thirty minutes later sit in the concert hall with sand still between your toes, and enough time left to crane your neck to get a better look at Estonia’s Who’s-Who, all present among the audience assuming they aren’t conducting the concert in question. In this case, on August 8th, at the Estonian Festival Orchestra’s concert under Paavo Järvi, those included Neeme Järvi, paterfamilias of the conducting clan, Arvo Pärt (at a sprightly 82 years still hopping – well, clambering – up the stage after his Third Symphony), and the splendid Erkki-Sven Tüür.[1] Also present: the slightly less well known Jüri Reinvere, whose And tired from Happiness… (“Und müde vom Glück”) received its premiere, and Tõnu Kõrvits, who was handed the Lepo Sumera Award for Composition before Järvi gave that night’s first upbeat at Pärnu Concert Hall.

Said hall has a pill-shaped layout, slightly raked orchestra seating and a balcony that goes 370° round all the way – except for a spot stage-right, where two immense 20-foot doors loom over the orchestra. Judging from a third back among the orchestra seats, it has a fine, accurate acoustic, not conducive to loud volumes and a little on the dry side. That proved a good environment to hear finely articulated strings and the clear woodwinds in Arvo Pärt’s Third Symphony, “his most popular to date, [which] makes a charismatic point of [the composer’s] then-newly won melodiously religious sentiment by quoting Gregorian chant amid all the other well-known Pärt contraptions”[2]. It also made the music appear as blocks of music (somewhere between Gabrieli and Bruckner), only reasonably seamlessly fused to form a gratifying whole. Strangely dampened, the Symphony ended up very much a low-octane affair for a concert opener.

The contrast was made more overt by Jüri Reinvere’s wham-bam And tired from Happiness… that opened the second half. The stage filled up to the brim with musicians, instigating the immediate thought: ‘Good luck getting that performed again!’ Then again, he may be onto something: Subsidized orchestra-musicians all over Europe need to work to satisfy the politicians that judge an orchestra’s success by how efficiently the total amount of players were used throughout the year. Never mind that this amounts to a penalty on performing Haydn and Mozart or anything else benefiting from a smaller ensemble – and skews the game in favor of the big romantics and beyond. If you have a harp and tuba and contra-bassoonist on your payroll, you have better use ‘em! Well, Jüri Reinvere does.

Pretty neatly, too: The faintly Wagner-ish “Schatten im Spiegel” movement glides and swells along pleasantly, fully harmonic (you’d scarcely expect anything else from an Estonian composer these days), with transitions that veered between Brucknerian and awkward. The long rising accumulative energy generated the thrill that the Pärt had denied. The mildly pretentious German movement titles can’t distract from that. The clusters are harmless. The string pizzicatos, accentuated by the [continue reading] clapper, make for a fine effect. The third movement combines film-music effectiveness with a workout for four percussionists who ended up going for broke in the finale, Tutuguri-style. Finally, a spasmodic end brings to a close this rather satisfying and promising music that goes for the gut.

Described by a very well-meaning critic as “revelatory: newly phrased, conceived and spaced, but without soloistic tricks and manners and if not note-perfect, a lesson in re-creative musicianship”, Elisabeth Leonskaja’s take on Grieg’s Piano Concerto, performed directly after the Pärt, was probably more ruffian than revelatory. She played it like Rachmaninoff’s Third… banged out heavily as she attacked the keys of the Hamburg Steinway from the top, but with astounding facility for a 72-year old pianist (allowing for the liberal caveats). Neither she nor the thickly-romantic sound of the orchestra generally distracted from the supremely digestible beauty of the work. The performance had plenty routine musicality but if it was ultimately successful, at least it wasn’t in any way exceptional. I never thought I’d actively miss Rudolf Buchbinder (the other Vienna mainstay pianist along with Leonskaja ), but in this case, his lithe-Mozartean take on Grieg would have been a welcome tonic. Leonskaja is a minor icon, but it’s been about 10 years since I have last been really impressed by her in concert.[3] The frenetic applause forced a rushed Schubert encore (the E-flat minor of the Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946)

Ravel’s La Valse, played with verve, a light touch, zero ‘duty’, lively woodwinds, would have been nice, energetically executed cap to the concert, except it was succeeded by two encores: Pushing the concert to severe lengths, there was something clarinet-heavy from Lepo Sumera with a fine Klezmeresque touch and yet another, the “Herd-maiden’s Dance” from Hugo Alfven’s Mountain King (I think) that sounded like Alfred Schnittke ice-skating across the score of Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Good stuff, late into the night, in little music-brimming Estonia.

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