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Concertgebouw Orchestra/Järvi at the Barbican

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition showed the brass section's panache, but Messiaens Turangalîla was something of a ruckus

Geoff Brown Those London concertgoers curious about what Mariss Jansons would make of Messiaen's hothouse symphony Turangalîla will have to stay curious. Advised to rest, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's charismatic conductor passed the baton for his two Barbican concerts to Neeme Järvi, a solid musician though not one overburdened with individuality. Still, whoever grasps the waving stick, the Concertgebouw is still the Concertgebouw. The repertoire was as dull as cardboard: Schumann's “Spring” Symphony, Mussorgsky's you-know-what. But nothing was ordinary about the orchestra's precision, the woodwind's pert copper colouring or the brass section's golden panache. And, for all its familiarity, you couldn't ask for a more useful Concertgebouw showcase than Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. How those catacomb walls shivered in the massive, dank, dark chords of the brass. The orchestra, and Järvi too, impressed even more whenever Mussorgsky's Pictures receded into pianissimo, tone and dynamics fading away, firmly controlled, wrapped in tight velvet. At the same time, where was the interpretation's point of view? This was the problem with the Schumann. Järvi knew how to spotlight its subtle kaleidoscope of hues (so much for the cliché of the composer's inept orchestration). But there was little in the phrasing, structuring or emotional temper to lift this reading beyond the acceptably ordinary. Getting Järvi genuinely impassioned appears difficult; gesturally, the only time he seemed on fire was conducting the encore, Sibelius's Andante Festivo, a full-throated song for strings. As for Turangalîla, that absurd hymn to love carnal and divine, Järvi's fondness for the slowed, sighing phrase gave a 19th-century romantic colouring that was out of place among gamelan patterings, birdsong cascades and the rest of Messiaen's tool chest. Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano demonstrated stamina but little poetry and the general ruckus easily swamped Cynthia Millar's ondes Martenot as it did the Concertgebouw sound, the biggest pity of all.