All the right notes, but not necessarily in the right tempo. Khatia Buniatishvili’s began the famed opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in a convulsive rush: chords crashing, scales devoured. Buniatishvili was a theatrical, untamed player. She bounced along to the piece’s peppier passages, rising off her seat during virtuoso runs before flicking her hair and glancing melodramatically to the heavens. At times conductor Paavo Järvi held eye contact as if entreating her to slow down.
And slow down she did. Having excelled in the trickling raindrop-piano sections of the concerto’s gentler second movement, Buniatishvili treated her encore – Debussy’s Clair de Lune – like a whisper. All her earlier vigour was swapped for the softest of touches. Buniatishvili luxuriated in and between every note, harmony and chord, as if reaching for perpetual stillness. This was a Clair de Lune so slow, the sun nearly came up.
Buniatishvili was not the prom’s sole luminary. Marking the centenary of Estonia’s initial independence from Russia, Paavo Järvi’s Estonian Festival Orchestra delivered a programme of supreme Nordic and Baltic music. This was the first time any Estonian orchestra had performed at the Proms. Naturally they began with music from their nation’s greatest composer: Arvo Pärt.
Regarded as a transitional work between Pärt’s serialist and minimalist periods, the Third Symphony is rarely performed. Here it sounded revelatory. Under Järvi, the music felt mutable but never erratic. Deeply bewildering key changes and polyphony seemed intuitive. Shards of brass and woodwind hinted at jazz. Glacial violins and violas swelled with emotion yet refused to burst. And amid all this, one of the most primal, stark expressions you’re likely to hear in any orchestral piece: a lone pounding drum building into a thunderous roll at the end of the first movement.
Perhaps Järvi’s appreciation of the symphony is innate: his father conducted its premiere in 1972. After the performance, Järvi was joined onstage by the man himself – Pärt (now 82) darting down from the audience to embrace the conductor, before taking two bows and bolting off stage. It’s rare a composer is actually present to hear their music performed at the Proms. Here it was a joyful sight.
Following an exceptional first half, Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony promised a momentous finale. Instead its first two movements lacked intensity. Järvi’s long, smooth baton movements proved too restrained, his brass underpowered during the symphony’s crescendos. This changed in the final movement, its stunning climax – always just a note or harmony short of full resolution – culminating in a series of spasmodic, stabbed chords. Sibelius has a way with endings.
The same could not be said, here at least, for Järvi’s Estonian Festival Orchestra, who returned for not one but two encores: Lepo Sumera’s theme for the Estonian animation Spring Fly and Hugo Alfven’s “Herd Maiden’s Dance”. Frothy and fun certainly, yet this was an inappropriate misstep in an otherwise carefully curated programme.
Featured image: Chris Christodoulou