Prom 67: Järvi, Jansen and the Orchestre de Paris

Royal Albert Hall organ

Organist Thierry Escaich must be feeling rather pleased with himself. Single-handedly overpowering an orchestra – granted with the help of the massive Royal Albert Hall organ – is not something that many can boast of. However, even if a finale of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ” played on the second largest organ in the country is inevitably going to steal the show, Paavo Järvi and his Orchestre de Paris still devote a considerable amount of expressive energy to the rest of the evening’s programme.

In complete contrast to its close, the concert opens with silence. Arvo Pärt writes in three beats of rest before the first striking of the bell at the start of his Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten. Although the music does gradually build, this is a work of understated serenity that is never going to be that loud. The huge space of the Albert Hall threatens to overwhelm the work, being scored for string orchestra and bell alone. But Järvi uses the space to his advantage. The sound literally comes from a great distance away, making one feel rather apart from it. Yet it adds a different dimension to the music. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, one is drawn to listen to it more carefully.

The entrance of the strings is one of the all-too-rare occasions when the performers are totally engaged with the music from the very outset, and Järvi coaxes a delicately warm sound from them too. But it is his ‘performance’ of silences, at the beginning and at the end of the work, which are the most entrancing. Even when all instruments have ceased to sound at the close, with arms still raised he refuses to end the piece. Instead Järvi forces the entire Albert Hall to continue listening to silence. It is by far the most affective moment in the concert, and one that could never be captured on a recording.

Janine Jansen’s violin playing in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto can equally captivate an audience. Although there is again the danger of the hall swallowing the sound from her solo violin, Jansen has no trouble in projecting. Her playing is characterised by its persistent sweetness and refusal to sound harsh. Nevertheless, there are many sides to it: joyful, playful, energetic, and occasionally ferocious. Her tackling of the cadenza between the second and third movements is particular impressive. She attacks it with complete confidence, unafraid of the virtuosity required. Meanwhile, Järvi ensures that the orchestra never overpower Jansen’s playing, keeping his orchestra under a firm control, while allowing them more power during orchestral interludes.

Following the interval is a programme of solely French repertoire. Järvi’s performance of Berlioz’s Overture ‘Le corsaire’ is fun and relentlessly energetic. It is almost over too quickly, turning it into a brief interlude before the following symphony. But it would be difficult for it not to be, since what follows is Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 Organ” played on an organ with 9,997 speaker pipes, the largest of which tower over the comparably tiny orchestra. With no organ in the first movement Järvi is still very much in control. The slow introduction is played handsomely: it is quiet but not too hesitant either. However, they lose momentum during the development section, especially during the less energetic moments when the orchestra seem unsure of where they are heading.

It is difficult for Järvi to maintain control into the second movement when the organ starts playing. The balance is not quite right here, as it completely overpowers the orchestra when it should be accompanying them. Escaich’s playing becomes the centre of attention, turning the second movement into a concerto for organ, which really should wait until the final movement.

Nevertheless, the huge C major chord on the organ that opens the final movement is ridiculously enormous. The organ’s monstrous sound finally forces the orchestra to put in the energy that they had been crucially missing in earlier movements. But there is absolutely no competition. The only way of telling that the orchestra really are playing as hard as they can is by watching them sawing, pounding or puffing away at their instruments. It is a wholly different experience from listening to a recording, and a far more comical one at that. Where else would one see a timpanist having to jump in an effort to be heard during the organ’s all-consuming final chord?

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