Events conspired against me and thwarted my plans to hear Jansons conduct Mahler in Amsterdam and Skrowaczewski conduct Bruckner in Munich. As a consolation prize I got to hear Paavo Järvi do Martinu, Ravel and Nielsen in Frankfurt.
A conductor-orchestra relationship really is like a marriage. Unless the two are on the same page regarding their musical philosophies and are also otherwise temperamentally compatible results will be mediocre. Even a conductor with brilliant ideas and brilliant technique cannot coax a great performance out of an orchestra that just doesn't buy into the way he does business. I found most of Paavo Järvi's recent Chicago appearances examples of a mild orchestra-conductor mismatch with rather uninspired music making verging on boredom. What a delight it was then to hear him with the hr Sinfonieorchester (also known in English as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra), of which he has been music director since 2006, in an imaginative and extremely well presented program.
I used to live in Frankfurt for a number of years and remember this orchestra well under its previous music director, Hugh Wolff. Hearing it again after four years made immediately apparent the improvements in quality Järvi has already achieved in this short time: the strings are fuller and much better coordinated, the colorful winds can be heard better, and the brass are more accurate. As a whole the band is much better blended and balanced.
Järvi opened the first half with Martinu's Three Frescoes of Piero della Francesca in honor of the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. (The CSO will be presenting the same work under Ludovic Morlot later this season.) This inexcusably neglected masterpiece with its myriad shades of coloration was an ideal showpiece to exhibit the new virtuosity of Järvi's finely calibrated orchestra.
The concert also saw the debut performance of the Japanese-German pianist Alice Sara Ott, who gained public attention after substituting at last minute for an indisposed Murray Perahia last year in Basel and at age 21 already has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Her sexed-up promotional images notwithstanding, one can happily report that Ott is a serious artist. She phrases with natural musicality, has an admirable variety of attacks and tonal colors, and has an overarching interpretive concept of the piece in which piano and orchestra are equal participants. Like many pianists of the younger generation, however, she is somewhat risk-averse and has a tendency towards playing things safe. This caused the first movement of the Ravel Concerto in G, in particular, to remain a bit earth bound. The second and third movements flowed more freely (fine contributions from the solo English horn) and the audience was rewarded with a Chopin Nocturne as an encore.
The second half of the program consisted of a powerful reading of Nielsen's Symphony No.2 "the Four Temperaments". As in the Martinu, Järvi managed to coax a deep and rich sound out of his orchestra while always maintaining polyphonic clarity.