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Paavo Järvi on Sibelius
The Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi has championed the music of Sibelius throughout Europe since making his conducting debut with the First Symphony back in 1985, and was awarded the Sibelius Medal in 2015 in recognition of his promotion of this repertoire in France, where it remained far from mainstream until very recently. Issued on Sony on 18th January, the live recordings which he made during his six-year tenure with the Orchestre de Paris represent the first complete Sibelius cycle from a French orchestra as well as Järvi’s own first recording of works which he views as a special milestone for any Nordic conductor.
I visited him in London earlier this month to discuss the reception-history of Sibelius in France, the special pleasure of recording the symphonies with an orchestra relatively unfamiliar with his music, FaceTime musical discussions with his father, and why he thinks young conductors should stay away from core repertoire…
Over the last few years in particular, you’ve done a lot to raise Sibelius’s profile in France – I wonder if you could give me a potted history of the reception of his music there?
In France there was a very famous musicologist, composer and conductor called René Leibowitz, who was a similar character to the German musicologist Adorno - both of them thought that Sibelius was the worst composer ever! As a result all the young music-lovers, musicologists, music educators, professors and musicians in these central European countries were trained to think that Sibelius is not really worth anything. The reason this idea came into play is because these two men thought the direction the new music had to take (if it’s any good) was the sort of thing that ended up being the Second Viennese School and serialism; they simply disagreed with the direction in which Sibelius went, and he was considered first of all not very good in terms of form but also very old-fashioned in terms of the direction. They similarly dismissed Rachmaninov and anybody else who dared to write music that had a Romantic feel to it. As a result, Germany and France (especially France) had very little experience of Sibelius’s music; they all know and love the Violin Concerto, because the great soloists insist on playing that.
And it so happened that in all the years of the Orchestre de Paris (and indeed other French orchestras) there had never been a complete set of Sibelius symphonies recorded by a French orchestra – this is now the twenty-first century and we still don’t have a complete set, so when I was the music director there I thought it was something that I would very much like to remedy. So we started playing Sibelius, and one of the things that I noticed was how well this exceptionally good orchestra play this music; I realised that they had no tradition with it, which meant that they were following their instincts and reacting to the actual music that they were hearing. Even with the most enigmatic of the symphonies (like No. 4, which I think is genius), they didn’t dismiss it as something that’s difficult to understand, and somehow they were open to exploring – they had no preconceived idea that it was difficult or unusual or hard to listen to, or somehow less 'obvious' than others. They just said ‘Sibelius 4? Let’s play!’.
What I loved about this whole experience was how open-minded the orchestra was, and how much they brought this real old-world warmth: a sound that had enough room and space to breathe. That’s something that the Orchestre de Paris is well known for – the kind of sensuous and warm sound – and to me, when I heard that with them I thought: ‘This is exactly where we need to record these symphonies’, because otherwise I would need to spend most of the time undoing things and convincing musicians not to follow the old tradition. There’s nothing wrong with tradition, but sometimes tradition is just a series of bad habits, of gestures that are no longer believable because they’re simply programmed into an interpretation – they’re not organic, and they don’t make so much sense. So with Orchestre de Paris we rediscovered a lot of this stuff and let it go where it feels like it needs to go.
So tradition can sometimes become a handicap, something that people follow without actually thinking why - very often you hear very famous pieces played in a certain way over and over, not because it’s written by the composer but because they’ve heard a recording where somebody did a rallentando, and so everybody else now manufactures and does the same thing without thinking why. So it is a luxury to have been able to record these pieces and explore this music with an orchestra that does not have preconceived notions about it, and really follows their heart when they play it.
So did you consciously wait until a point in your career where you would have that opportunity to start with a tabula rasa, if you like, rather than working with an orchestra that had done this cycle three or four times on disc?
One of the things that I regret is recording a lot of standard repertoire when I was young: you want to do your Tchaikovsky or your Mahler and Beethoven, but my advice to young conductors is ‘Stay away from standard repertoire when you’re young!’. There’s plenty of good, interesting music that you should be championing as a young musician. Of course a Beethoven set is the defining set [for a lot of conductors], and for us it’s Sibelius – for a Nordic conductor (I'm Estonian) a Sibelius set is something that’s very special. Every Nordic conductor has recorded a Sibelius set: some, like Paavo Berglund, have recorded it twice, in fact even three times, and this is no joking matter. So for me to do this now was a very conscious decision because I didn’t want to do it too early and I wanted it to be special, and I found an orchestra that would be right for it, which was also a very unlikely orchestra. I like the fact that it was not an expected collaboration, something that made sense marketing-wise, like an Estonian or Finnish orchestra, or even a London orchestra for that matter (the English are great Sibelius lovers and English orchestras have a long tradition of Sibelius); coming from Paris, that’s really unusual and slightly suspect, and I kind of like that idea. I like that we present something a little bit different, a little bit fresh, and a little bit controversial. And by doing that I think that we will convince a lot of French musicians and French audiences to have a very serious second look at this composer called Sibelius.
Were there any particular traditions – either throughout the cycle or in specific symphonies - that you wanted to undo?
I grew up in a conductor’s family and recordings of Sibelius were played in our house all the time; of course Bernstein was the big influence, being one of the great Sibelius conductors. Then there are the famous Karajan recordings, plus Robert Kajanus, Berglund, Barbirolli, Beecham, Stokowski...everybody who has ever recorded Sibelius, we had! I grew up with these really old-world recordings – super-slow late Romantic, Richard Straussian interpretations, which were totally beautiful and convincing – yet as I grew older I felt that maybe Sibelius needs to have a little bit more of a straightforward approach, something that has more impulse and rhythmic vitality, not so much influenced by Wagner and Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And so in the beginning when I was starting to conduct the symphonies there was a little bit of exaggeration to the other side, where everything was fast, quite kinetic and hard-hitting, quite modern if you will.
But now after conducting this music for 25 years, I think the truth is somewhere in between: you need to find the rhythmic clarity, the impulse and the heartbeat that is clearly there, and still have room to breathe, and to really connect with that time. It was still an 'old' world: the sound-world that was expected and understood and was in the ear of composers like Sibelius was still an old-world, Germanic, lush sound-world full of colour, full of sostenuto, and a nuanced but rich sound: something that I find very difficult now to find in any orchestra. Of course the great German orchestras like Berlin can do it, but I find Orchestre de Paris can too: even in French music they have a string sound that’s full of rich colour and nuance and juice, something that I find Sibelius really needs. So I went from loving the Romantic performances to the exact opposite, to insisting that it has nothing to do with the Russian tradition, and now to understanding that probably somewhere in between is the right compromise.
Your father recorded these symphonies with Gothenburg: how much discussion do you have about interpretation of these scores within your very musical family?
Oh, there’s constant discussion about music! We talk very often, mostly on FaceTime or Skype, and basically when we talk we talk about music - about interpretations, about the musical world in general…But of course when you have the luxury of having such a master on the phone, then how can you not ask and discuss the important points? Because he has recorded and played Sibelius all his life, he has a wealth of information – and what’s important is not so much direct information as more kind of relaying the experience which he had, and one can learn so much from hearing the type of practical things that he suggests sometimes. So yes, we have a lot of discussion, and I still learn so much from that.