Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Recorded April and May 2004 in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: April 2005
CD No: BIS-SACD-1416
Duration: 67 minutes
Vaguely Transylvanian looks did not stop Fritz Reiner bagging the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Osmo Vänskä has not yet ascended to head one of the world’s top orchestras, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. In so far as the record collector is concerned he is already an inescapable presence on the shelves, his discography both more plentiful and more distinguished than that of his illustrious Finnish peers. We have BIS to thank for that – for a Sibelius cycle that is almost universally recognised as the best of the digital age, followed by a Nielsen series which if less than definitive, is always thought-provoking in its warm humanity and bumptious immediacy of response. Now comes the biggest challenge. Is there really a place for a Vänskä Beethoven cycle? According to the conductor himself, he waited a month or so before agreeing to do it, reassured perhaps by the marketability of state of the art DSD technology.
In a sense he has recorded Beethoven before, contributing to BBC relays that appeared subsequently attached to a magazine cover or as part of the relatively low-profile series of BBC Proms CDs that I reviewed for Gramophone magazine in 1999. I found the Seventh, taped on 2 August 1998, “terrifically fresh and alert” and many of the other characteristics of that performance are present in these new readings from Minnesota. Again we have the rhythmic buoyancy, distinctive phrasing and wide-ranging dynamics familiar from his Scandinavian repertoire. Then there are the vaguely authenticist elements characteristic of his conducting of Beethoven, including plentiful repeats, antiphonally placed violins, lean translucent textures and almost excessively euphoric finales.
BIS has pulled out the stops with the packaging, combining fine design with booklet notes by Barry Cooper no less. Sound quality is predictably distinguished, with plentiful hall ambience, but I do urge you to play the disc louder than usual. Even then the relative lack of body may disappoint those used to hearing cellist-conductors turbo-charging their performances from the bottom up. The sonority of the Minnesota band, like the BBC Scottish, is trim and super-fit rather than full and rich. Listen closely and the bass-line is always there, taking us forward. That said, you might just guess that the conductor began life in a woodwind section (clarinet for ten years with the Turku and Helsinki Philharmonics).
Finding the right setting to accommodate his meticulously terraced dynamics has never been easy. In broad outline neither reading represents a radical interpretative break with past practice: Vänskä’s elucidation of detail is extraordinary but lacks Rattle’s self-consciousness, evincing no desire to compare and contrast performance traditions within a single narrative. Some listeners will be grateful for that, others will find the Finn a mite low-key. I did not myself have any problems with the Fourth, which strikes me as among the best of modern times. Its third movement is slower than you might expect, the finale rather brisk, though no brisker than Pierre Monteux’s and with a comparable awareness of its humour.
In the Fifth too Vänskä doesn’t put a foot wrong, encouraging prodigious feats of articulation in the third movement trio and some distinctly apocryphal interventions from the timpani in the finale. And yet I did miss the solid sonic punch of Vienna, Berlin or Chicago, the yet more insistent trajectory of either of the Kleibers or a Toscanini, a certain authoritarian gravitas. Strongly recommended even so.