Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Recorded June 2007 in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: March 2008
CD No: BIS
Duration: 68 minutes
No-one collecting Osmo Vänskä’s Beethoven cycle for BIS is likely to be disappointed by this latest issue. In concerts at least, the Minnesota Orchestra does not quite justify its aspirations to join the top-table, yet it acquits itself with the utmost distinction in recordings. So what if the pristine new-minted effect has to be fought for. It is achieved – and for real. Neither winds nor brasses have quite the personality of the big names. Meanwhile the astonishing precision of the strings, not least in achieving the patented whisper of the Vänskä pianissimo, is much in evidence, aided and abetted by a sympathetic recording team. Whether that is enough to make these performances your first choice is perhaps another matter. With romantic subjectivity rigorously eschewed, the readings rely on a novel freshness of articulation to make their mark and, in one or two corners, my ear was disturbed as much as stimulated.
The very greatest recorded accounts of the ‘Pastoral’ alchemize an astonishing sense of closure in its final pages and you won’t find Vänskä the equal of, say, Toscanini in this respect. While Vänskä’s tempo for the finale is not unduly slow, its finessed sonorities are achieved at some cost to forward thrust and the ultimate release of joy. Or so it seems. Is there just a hint of dutiful chug? Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for transcendence. The second movement (‘Scene by the Brook’) on the other hand is quite wonderful, the crystalline sonorities favoured by the conductor absolutely right for Beethoven’s watery nature painting. Not that the ‘symphonic’ argument is anything but tautly held.
In the First Symphony the opening movement is somehow less robust than I was expecting with some minor affectations of phrasing to point up the music’s deliberate perversity. Impossible however not to admire the way the team refuses to take a bar for granted. The gracious and, where appropriate, puckish Andante is surely spot-on, with equally unimpeachable results obtained in the rest of the work.
There seems to be a new and welcome orthodoxy coalescing around the notion of Beethoven being kept on the move, kitted-out with the latest scholarship on matters of text and vibrato and definitely brought back into the interpretative mainstream and hence also the mainstream of concert life. A maestro like Sir Simon Rattle is braver in mixing and matching from various traditions, whether ‘historically informed’ or merely historical, but – it has to be said – Vänskä’s achievement may be more important as well as more consistent.
Anyone can tinker with the literal (and limited) truth of the indications on a page; it’s liberating the spirit within that presents the real difficulty. In our sceptical time we are prone to study and restudy the most outstanding works of art when perhaps what we need to do is believe. Vänskä says that he aims for “passion and precision”. Whatever my reservations, this is never superficial music-making. Let the ear-cleansing continue!