Venue: National Concert Hall, Taipei
Performers: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Paavo Järvi (conductor), Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (official)
Overture to Genoveva, Op. 81
Hungarian Dances, Nos. 3, 6
From the first note of Schumann's Overture to Genoveva, we knew we were listening to a vibrant orchestra with an energetic director. The conductor Paavo Järvi was named the prestigious 2015 Gramophone Artist of the Year. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has been on the rise since Järvi's arrival in 2004. This team has impressed the musical world with The Beethoven Project, a name given to its refreshing and vital accounts of Beethoven's symphony cycle. From there we can already deduce many characteristics of this team. It is obvious to any discerning ears that its interpretations are strongly influenced by the historically informed performance practice, even as they play the modern instruments: Järvi conducts at tempos very close to Beethoven's metronome marks and often pushes the tempos and dynamics beyond the usual boundaries for novel effects. He also favors leaner string texture and sports sharp attacks on the down beats, much like one would expect from Nikolaus Harnoncourt or John Eliot Gardiner, to name two familiar figures in the HIP movement. Even though the Bremen orchestra does not have star soloists in its roster, it is remarkably responsive to Järvi's every direction. This is indeed extraordinary as Järvi takes elastic tempos and rarely let a music phrase go by without taking his baton to lovingly shape the music one way or the other.
In the Genoveva(*) overture, Järvi paid special attention to harmonic shifts. Owing to the relatively smaller size of the orchestra and especially to Järvi's direction, the Schumann gained much contrapuntal clarity and each part can be heard clearly even during the orchestral tutti. It was the "chamber-music-like" quality in the best sense of the word, as the name of the orchestra might have suggested.
With a small pause allowing the stage workers to place the piano in the front center of the stage, and other small changes of instrumentation, we were joined by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the Beethoven's E-flat concerto, Op. 73. Aimard is of course especially renowned for his sensitive and authoritative interpretations of the twentieth-century masters, e.g., Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez among others, having studied with Yvonne Loriod and worked in Ensemble InterContemporain under the direction of Boulez. One fully expected that he would bring different insights into the work from his distinguished background and from his recordings with Harnoncourt.
Indeed, from the piano arpeggio following the opening E-flat chord we knew immediately this was not just "another Emperor". The boldness of the interpretation was extraordinary. Aimard often stretched the tempos to the extreme, even far more than the conductor would allow himself. Instead of hammering the keys to produce sonority rising above the orchestra, he caressed them with low wrist position to produce singing tones. Together with the conductor, he underlined any major events and emphasized contrasts, as in the development of the opening movement. Aimard and Järvi dispensed the more traditional, romantic slow movement, favoring faster tempi and more classical, Mozart-like, approach. They were both fired up in the final Rondo, with a hair-rising ending.
In the end, if one has strong opinions about how Beethoven should be played, one might find Aimard's approach idiosyncratic or even eccentric. Whatever one's opinion was, there is no denial that Aimard was superbly equipped to play this, but he and Järvi chose not to play the E-flat concerto like a warhorse. Instead they opted to explore and discover the nuances by trying out unusual phrasings and novel way of accents and attacks. It was a remarkably refreshing and interesting performance, if sometimes a bit too extreme for my taste. There were also occasions of sonic imbalances between the piano and the orchestra, especially in the first two movements, due in part to Aimard's refusal to produce "bigger" sound, I think. Still my listening partner CY liked it a lot and Ping immediately requested to hear Aimard's recordings with Harnoncourt when we will return home in a few weeks.
Before the encore, Aimard spoke about the "missing composer" from today's program of three Austro-German masters: Arnold Schoenberg. He then played Schoenberg's Op. 11 No. 3, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 from Op. 19. Here one could see how his piano tone production was strongly influenced by his training in the modern piano repertoire, paying special attention to timbre and attuned to extreme low dynamics (pppp), as in, e.g., Anton Webern, and Boulez.
After the intermission, Järvi and his band played Brahms with chamber-like quality alluded above. With smaller forces and different articulations and attacks, they brought revelatory clarity and sonic dynamism into Brahms. Like Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose Brahms I consider still far and away the best I have ever heard, Järvi employed elastic tempos throughout. This is a risky approach, as the elasticity could produce incoherence or total collapse if the structure isn't there. Fortunately, Järvi made it work and raised the symphonic narrative and theatricality to the next level. (Make no mistake, however, their approaches are absolutely completely different on the surface. WF would have none of these HIP-inspired gestures.) In the end Järvi managed to conjure up one exciting Brahms' c minor symphony, indeed one of more exciting I have heard in recent years.
For encores, Järvi and his forces played two of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dances, with the tempi playfully stretched to the extremes, even more pronounced than their recorded performances (No. 3 and No. 6). Interestingly, in a way this seemed very apt for the occasion (as encores).
(*) The story of Genevieve of Brabant was quoted in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.