Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Recorded in June 2005 and January 2006 in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: August 2006
CD No: BIS-SACD-1516
Duration: 76 minutes
Osmo Vänskä has great ambitions for an orchestra whose recent (2006) BBC Proms appearance suggested that the players will have to work hard to achieve them. Fortunately the present CD, the second instalment of an ongoing Beethoven cycle, is much more impressive. It’s not just that the band’s basically lightweight, rather feature-less sonority is boosted by the epic, wide-ranging sonics conjured by Robert Suff’s expert BIS team. Vänskä is, I believe, the most convincing Beethovenian of his generation, taking on board the modern passion for textual fidelity and moment by moment clarity without sacrificing the cut and thrust of the argument and its underlying harmonic movement.
The Eighth might just be the finest account of the digital era. The ‘Eroica’ is only marginally less successful, though less feverishly precipitate than I was expecting: there are more pockets of relaxation than either Toscanini or Bernstein allowed. Amid the welter of audacious balances and authenticist effects in what is nonetheless an intelligent, satisfying first movement, some will take issue with the extreme dynamic range favoured by both conductor and record company. This fetish for pianissimo isn’t unique to Vänskä but he goes much further than, say, Sir Simon Rattle, in allowing his pale-textured, vibrato-light strings to retreat into near-inaudibility, his violins antiphonally placed. This is not under-projection but a deliberate tactical ploy. As the recapitulation homes into view, Vänskä daringly renders the famously anticipatory entry of the (second) horn as a quizzical shimmer you might miss altogether if not properly attentive. In the coda, the trumpets are abruptly silenced rather than ringing out with the main theme for one last time: the notes weren’t available in the composer’s day but it has been traditional to second-guess him. Not so here. The second subject may strike you as refreshingly unsentimental or unhelpfully choppy. Sonorities are lean, never scrawny.
In the funeral march, where Sir Simon courts controversy by playing Furtwänglerish and authenticist manners off against each other, Vänskä is less speculative, firmly sculpting the argument with string groups precisely located on an extended sound stage. The third movement is notable for the glorious hunting horn stylisation of its trio, while the finale has both definition and momentum to commend it even if tension is again allowed to drop for the more rural episodes.
I am reluctant to criticise the Eighth, a performance so compelling that I immediately had to play it again. This is bold, seismic Beethoven, and similar in temper to Toscanini’s matchless late NBC recording in its refusal to treat the music as in any way ‘little’. The outer movements unleash the cumulative power that seems to embarrass lesser conductors, while the inner ones are full of novel accentuation and enlivening rhythmic inflexions. On one level, in its unhurried pacing, the third movement Minuet is bravely traditional. It’s not quite all plain sailing. The woodwinds can be reticent at times – not so the timpani – and for all the obvious care that has gone into preparation and realisation one can’t help wondering what this super-articulate rendition might have sounded like in Chicago, Vienna or Berlin. One day perhaps we will find out.
In any event I can’t think of a conductor without a bus-pass whose Beethoven I would rather hear now. Recommended.