Recording of the Week,
Paavo Järvi conducts orchestral works by Bartók
Since 2016, the Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo has been Paavo Järvi, and together they have made several acclaimed recordings of music by Mahler and Richard Strauss. Now comes their most accomplished album yet of three works by Bartók: alongside characterful accounts of the Divertimento and the Dance Suite they offer an unsettlingly eerie performance of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
The orchestra has over the years attracted an impressive list of previous conductors, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Charles Dutoit, and André Previn, and it only takes a few moments of listening to them to understand why: the sound they make is really rather beautiful, especially in the string section, which plays with great finesse. In fact, so technically polished are they that sometimes this can be detrimental: in an interview with my colleague Katherine, Järvi commented that when performing music such as Stravinsky and Bartók he would often have to ask the orchestra to stop sounding so beautiful and to make their playing much uglier! Although I feel they could have gone even further in a few places, the results of this attention to quality of sound are most evident, particularly the opening of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, where the muted violas bring a detached coldness that is quite unnerving.
The whole first movement is extremely intense; the tension builds as more and more string parts enter, but even with multiple independent lines going on, you can hear with absolute transparency each and every one of them. Again in that interview, Järvi mentions how important clarity and precision are to this orchestra, and there’s no better example of that than here.
For me, the highlight of both the piece and this recording has to be the third movement: with its desolate, repeated xylophone notes, timpani glissandos, and harsh, angular string writing, it’s an extraordinarily creepy movement full of quiet despair. It’s hard to describe in words, but the passage about two and a half minutes in where pianissimo trills and a chain of ascending and descending glissando wails from the violins accompany a chromatic melody from celesta and two solo violins, punctuated by implacable major sevenths from the piano, is so disturbing and chilling that I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing I would want to listen to in the dark! It's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick chose this precise section of the piece for part of the soundtrack to The Shining.
Especially in this piece, Järvi often takes a relatively expansive view on tempos (Bartók actually gives quite detailed breakdowns of the timing of movements here and in the Divertimento for string orchestra, which admittedly Järvi frequently exceeds, but then very few other recordings get anywhere near either!), but this is all for the very good reason of allowing the music the space it needs. Not once did I feel that the pace was sluggish or dragging in any way, it was simply a pleasure to wallow in the tremendous sounds that the NHK players were making.
The versatility that the orchestra possesses is amply demonstrated in the Divertimento, where they are adept at navigating its changing moods: the opening is full of richness and depth, and yet they bring a huge amount of grace and deftness when required. I can’t say enough good things about this recording: the variety of sounds that they make is nothing short of stunning, turning from the gentlest of pianissimos to the most ferocious of fortissimos with great ease. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!