Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra serve up a memorable night of Sibelius
Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra are among the finest contemporary advocates for the Sibelius symphonies, and their Thursday night concert of the Finnish composer’s music was a superb experience, full of deep feeling and explosive energy. The concert built inexorably to a point of complete and profound fulfillment.
That process began logically, with Symphony No. 3, one of the composer’s more Apollonian scores. The orchestra played with vitality and phrasing that sounded ideal; every rhythm, attack, and accent was articulated with maximum clarity and a precise application of force.
While the orchestra lacks just the last bit of weight in the music’s grand resonances, they made up for it with energy, technical refinement, and an intuitive understanding of the music. Sibelius is a composer with a unique relationship to time, able to make music that at times races ahead of the clock, and that alternately creates the sensation that time stands still. The Andantino was surprisingly slow, almost an Adagio. Appearing at first to be too still, one waited anxiously to see how this would resolve—it turned into a gorgeous, slow motion ballet. The finale was warm and mellow.
Hahn played Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with strength. She grappled with the music, and this was in no way a negative. She embraced the physicality of the solo part and the push and pull with the orchestra. A particular example was her driving playing of the fast arpeggios that close out the first movement. Vänskä seemed to challenge her with a quick Allegro, and Hahn responded with a visceral sense that she was pushing back against, and through, the entire orchestra, in an exhilarating game of king of the hill.
Her tone was big, firm, glowing but not overly bright. In contrast to the great contemporary master of this piece, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hahn is an extroverted player, expressing meaning by outlining the music and reveling in the flow of the notes. Her cadenza was an intense search, the music pressing against the outer world. Responding to the ovation, her encore was, curiously, the same one Mutter played last year; the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin.
The concluding performance of the Symphony No. 1 was tremendous. Vänskä and the orchestra bring a special impetuousness and fury to this music. After the lonely clarinet solo from Gregory T. Williams, the orchestra began a tumultuous, headlong rush, lines and sections on the verge of running over each other. The cadential low brass and timpani hits were as quick and blunt as a ball-peen hammer.
In stretches where the music is still, there was the feeling of a powerful beast only just being held back on a leash. This was immediately exciting and also musically and expressively meaningful. Sibelius’ First Symphony—one of the greatest of first symphonies—is full of tension, and the music always seems to be step ahead.
The first movement hurtled along. The tempo was not extraordinarily fast but the spirit of the playing felt barely controlled. The inherent instability of the movement’s final G minor chord sets up the elusive resolution that the music chases through the final three movements, and the orchestra chased it for all they were worth.
Vänskä handled the complex pulses in the Andante with a noticeably slow tempo, and that served to continue to torque up the tension. The feeling of storm and stress was almost overwhelming.
The conductor, animated throughout, just about leapt out of his shoes during a wild scherzo, played at a nearly insane tempo. That was surpassed in intensity by the finale. The players held onto the turmoil in the music—the folk-type music was crazed and astonishing—and drove it all the way home to the last note.
That last moment, one of both finality and a grim determination to move beyond, was frustratingly marred by the lack of silence. The audience could not even wait a hair’s breadth in time to let the power of the performance affect them before they burst into applause.
But it was an enthusiastic and partisan crowd, one the players showed they deserved. Vänskä gave them the time and space to exhale with three Sibelius miniatures: The Countess’s Portrait and incidental music from The Tempest.
But is is that final E minor of Symphony No. 1 will haunt the memory.