Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä at Carnegie Hall –Nielsen Sinfonia espansiva – Stephen Hough plays Tchaikovsky

The Voyevoda, Op.3 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.3, Op.27 (Sinfonia espansiva)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Karin Wolverton (soprano) & Jeffrey Madison (baritone)

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 27 October, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Osmo VänskäThe Minnesota Orchestra has distinguished itself with some memorable concerts in New York City in recent years. Osmo Vänskä began with the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s opera The Voyevoda – not to be confused with the later symphonic poem of that name (Opus 78) – in a relaxed, placid mood, gently summoning the first statement of a melody that is reiterated until it culminates in a distinctively Tchaikovskian grand-scale tutti followed by episodic, fervid music unusual in overall form for the composer. Tchaikovsky attempted to destroy the work after its premiere but enough parts survived for the work to be reconstructed during the Soviet era, and its adventurous, rhapsodic structure, formally daring for an opera overture. Vänskä and the Minnesotans left a strong impression with it.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaIn the concerto Stephen Hough was matched with a Steinway that had a weak upper-mid-range and a harsh high register. Despite the instrument’s shortcomings, Hough and Vänskä gave a thrilling performance that downplayed the sentimental and had Lisztian melodic and rhythmic sweep, particularly in the first movement. Hough’s phrasing and dynamics did much to bring detail and personality to the music, and even the most virtuosic passages were clear. Swifter-than-usual tempos didn’t seem hard-pressed or rushed, and also lent an uncharacteristic – but welcome – heroic nature to the third movement’s ‘big tune’. Hough brought to bear typical transparency and vigor. Hough’s encore, a ‘Notturno’ from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, was a complete contrast, gently and beautifully rendered.

Carl Nielsen’s ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ is the first of his orchestral works to display the composer’s mature style. Vänskä’s approach is not so much ‘expansive’ as it is dynamic, deliberately structured, and direct in conveying widely contrasting moods and episodes. The symphony’s opening staccato chords had plenty of punch, and the frenetic energy of the string writing and wind sonorities that were at turns pungent and delicate served to propel the opening movement forward. While I like the music of the sunny, pastoral second movement, I’ve never been sold on the vocalise in its central section, a matter that was not helped by the ample vibratos of Karin Wolverton and Jeffrey Madison, though for once the balances and their blend with the orchestra was spot-on, with soloists placed in opposite rear corners of the stage. The third movement scherzo was full of jaunty humor, and the finale was rich in melodic warmth and refreshingly jocular fugato passages.

From a technical standpoint, the Minnesota Orchestra is one of the finest in the country. The strings are bright but with plenty of body, and the winds and brass have one of the most pleasing blends of any American orchestra – including an impressive horn section that was particularly outstanding in the opening work and Nielsen’s third movement. With Vänskä on the podium, the Minnesotans are presenting some of the most characterful and thoughtful music-making on the continent.

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