Last night we attended a concert of the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä at Carnegie Hall. (Amanda makes some trenchant comments on the program notes, and some observations on how wonderful an experience this was, in the post immediately preceding; I agree with everything she says.)
The first half was Beethoven Violin Concerto in a pellucid yet inert reading by Lisa Batiashvili. She created a gorgeously refined and clear pianissimo, but seemed stuck in that groove. It shouldn’t be the case that the most memorable playing came from the orchestra, or that the most interesting moments came in the hilariously inappropriate cadenzas by Alfred Schnittke. Amanda’s comment was that the performance “lacked nothing,” and she said it felt as if we were in the teacher’s studio as he instructed his protégé to finesse and time every single gesture. “CD-ready,” she called it. (It didn’t help that we were sitting next to a man whose repertory of assorted gastric and respiratory noises was seemingly inexhaustible.)
No, the memorable music-making came in the second half, Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, and an encore, the Valse triste (played melodramatically, with whispered pianississimi followed by a frantic rush to the climax). The surprise was that Vänskä’s performances were totally different from his well-known and highly praised recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (the Finnish orchestra with which he first achieved renown). The Lahti recordings are part of the recent trend toward chamber-orchestra Sibelius: minimal vibrato, transparent textures, and highlighted woodwinds. (For other fine examples of this, see the recordings by Berglund (Chamber Orchestra of Europe) and especially Zehetmair.) But last night, Vänskä didn’t try to turn his full-size band into a chamber group. This was Sibelius from another era: string-heavy sonority, winds
almost backwardly balanced integrated into the general texture, great heft at times from the brasses, pounding timpani. (I realize that part of this may have been where we were sitting, but we were in center orchestra.)
All in all, this was actually more like Karajan’s Sibelius rather than Berglund’s. Instead of highlighting the details, Vänskä largely let them “swim in the sauce” (for this phrase, and a wealth of insights on interpreting Sibelius, this interview with Berglund, Saraste, Vänskä, Salonen, Sir Colin Davis, Rattle, and Neeme Järvi is a must-read). Coupled with Vänskä’s ability to spin out long lines in the phrasing, this blend created an impression of organic growth and great power in the Seventh, necessary to make the unfolding of Sibelius’ unorthodox form seem inevitable.
Which is right: hyperdetail or sauciness? There’s a photo of Sibelius rehearsing the Fifth Symphony with an absurdly small orchestra (not available online), but little indication that he necessarily regarded small forces as the ideal; and Sibelius was also on record as liking Karajan’s decidedly non-chamber recordings (Karajan recorded many of the symphonies in mono with the Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI before Sibelius died in 1957). What’s refreshing is that Vänskä has a pragmatic approach to this question; he adopts the style best suited to the forces before him, rather than insisting that there’s only one way to approach Sibelius. One could say that the chamber-style approach is more historically informed, and insist on its superiority, but Vänskä seems to recognize that Sibelius himself had many options, and might have relished many approaches.
Finally, on a personal note, Sibelius’s Sixth is a favorite of mine; there’s no music that is more important to me. Whenever we go off into the mountains for hiking trips, we play the Sixth as our valediction as we drive back home. Hearing it live for the first time was an almost unbearably moving experience—in part because the finer points of Sibelius’s textures, such as his luminous string divisi, rarely come across on recordings. And I don’t know how much my ecstatic response was due to the thrill of hearing this piece I adore for the first time in the concert hall. But this performance revealed to me many new aspects of Sibelius’s genius. One example: in the buildup to the climax of the fourth movement, there’s a passage where the strings chug along to a background of sustained notes (at 0:40 and 1:40 in the performance below with Rattle and the Berliners). That much I’ve known, but I didn’t fully realize that these pedal points became highly dissonant before dissipating. Last night, this subtle effect was beautifully unnerving.
Sibelius said that while his contemporaries were serving up fancy cocktails, his music was cold spring water. Perhaps, but for me that purity and austerity contains within it a profound emotional intensity that, last night, gave me one of my more memorable concert experiences.
[UPDATE: other reviews: Anthony Tommasini in the NYT, Arthur Leonard on his blog; Vänskä’s own thoughts on these pieces; Arthur Leonard contributes a comment which makes me rethink my assessment of backwardly balanced woodwinds.]