Beethoven 2 & 7/Osmo Vänskä

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Recorded January 2008 in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: September 2008
[CD/SACD Hybrid]
Duration: 76 minutes



And so we come to the last instalment of Osmo Vänskä’s big-band Beethoven cycle, a set which many commentators would rate as the finest of recent years. Once again a pristine, new-minted effect is achieved despite a certain lack of personality in the winds and brasses and the adoption for the most part of decidedly traditional tempos. It is the precise articulation of a sizeable body of lean-toned strings which is likely to impress the most, together with the sense that the music is always going somewhere, liberated rather than constrained by the demands of scholarship (the Bärenreiter texts are used).

The performance of the Second Symphony seems to me beyond reproach. This not one of those readings in which the young firebrand composer is transmuted prematurely into magus. For conductors from Otto Klemperer to Leonard Bernstein the music had less to do with Haydn than with the Romantic age but Vänskä shows how what Bernstein called its “abundance of manic ideas … surges and explosions” can be brought off without a hint of inflation. His rhythmic sense is at least as acute as theirs and his sense of humour raises the stakes still further. Perhaps the occasional affectation distracted you in Symphony No.1. Not so here: like Vänskä’s glorious Eighth I’d say this is quite simply as good as it gets.

The Seventh is of course the tougher test and here I imagine some listeners will have reservations. Isn’t there a bit too much of the patented whisper that is the Vänskä pianissimo? The first statement of the bare-bones theme on which the second movement is built trails off into inaudibility in an ear-catching if conceivably tiresome effect. In the third movement, the trio section twice leads back into the scherzo in similar fashion. The incidentals may grate but the architecture is still mightily impressive. Vänskä not only understands the rhetoric; he even seems to get the jokes! Romantic subjectivity is rigorously eschewed yet the music is never becalmed, never merely mechanical as is the way with so many over-praised contemporary accounts.

What’s missing even so is a certain grit: this Beethoven is almost too poised and aerated for its own good. Nor is there the near-hysteria produced when a Carlos Kleiber was on the podium, the sense of a forward momentum so fierce and unstoppable that the players (and the planet) seem about to whirl out of control. Perhaps, like me, you first became aware of Vänskä’s potential greatness as a Beethoven conductor with his fine performance of No.7 at the BBC Proms in 1998, a rendition briefly available on disc. Surging to its inevitable end with vigour and security, the cellos and basses now blazing as forcefully as they do for Toscanini and Harnoncourt, this new version is a worthy successor indeed.

I hope I haven’t undersold the merits of a series it has been a privilege to review. As I suggested previously, one consequence of our sceptical time is that we are prone to study and restudy the most outstanding works of art when perhaps what we need to do is believe in them. Vänskä reassures me that a combination of “passion and precision” is the way forward. And once again he is assisted by the epic, wide-ranging recording conjured by Robert Suff’s expert BIS team and by Barry Cooper’s authoritative booklet notes.

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