Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä in New York – Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge & Sibelius’s Kullervo

Grosse Fuge, Op.133 [arr. Michael Steinberg]
Kullervo, Op.7

Päivi Nisula (soprano) & Hannu Niemelä (baritone)

YL Male Voice Choir

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 1 March, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Osmo VänskäScholars, critics and artists have long debated the question of whether many of Beethoven’s late works are suited to the instruments for which they were written. Some argue that more modern instruments have mooted the debate, at least insofar as the last solo piano works are concerned; in the case of his late string quartets, conductor Hans von Bülow programmed Grosse Fuge some five decades after the composer’s death, proving not only that the “unplayable” work was indeed playable, but providing pundits and punters alike an opportunity to ponder whether the piece is better served by a string orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä conducted Michael Steinberg’s 1982 arrangement of Grosse Fuge, which draws upon not only the string quartet version (the original finale of Opus 130) but also Beethoven’s arrangement for two pianos — which provides important details of accent, phrasing and emphasis. The danger with the opening figures is that they can come across as fragmented and terse, but in the present performance were played with all the insistence one would expect, but also palpable anticipation, pressing the music forward. Vänskä’s approach to the faster material was a degree above urgent, but still a safe distance from too much frenzy; the music took on a bold, assertive and uncharacteristically youthful character. Neither Vänskä nor the players ratcheted down the tension in the central moderato section, propelling the music forward with increasing tension until the allegro tempo resumed. If anything, the forward momentum seemed to slowly build toward the extended coda, which for the first time in an orchestral version did not seem to overstay its welcome, taking on the character of a constantly transforming soliloquy. Balances were exemplary throughout (antiphonal violins, double basses on the left); the cellos and basses nearly had one’s pantlegs flapping in the fortissimo section. Since Vänskä assumed its music directorship, the Minnesota Orchestra’s string sound has taken on an unusually warm overall sound for an American orchestra.

The premiere of Sibelius’s “Kullervo” in 1893 was an enormous success, but the composer suppressed the work shortly thereafter for reasons that he didn’t make particularly clear. Vänskä himself cited two reasons to me after the performance: the work makes enormous demands on the conductor and players, and Sibelius may well have been influenced by some of the negative comments from orchestral players about the quality and length of the music. One can also argue that the scoring is often too thick and sometimes crude, or that the work needed editing — but all such criticisms can be swept aside with a convincing and well-considered performance of this work by the young Sibelius whose music is at once grand in the late-Romantic tradition and unabashedly primal in a manner that matches the tragic, dark tale of the one unredeemable character from Finnish legend, a “son of evil” who unknowingly rapes his sister, kills an entire wing of his family, and ultimately kills himself with a sword given him by one of the gods.

Vänskä has achieved a reputation as one of the great Sibelius interpreters, but one at odds with many of the composer’s earlier champions. You won’t find, for example, the lushness of Ormandy or the lingering, well-upholstered approach of Barbirolli; Vänskä favors leaner sound and more delineated instrumental timbres — which has the overall effect of casting Sibelius not as a Romantic but as a modernist innovator.

“Kullervo” unfolds in long, often strophic repetitive expanses, and Vänskä sacrificed nothing in inexorable forward motion in either the long introductory movement or the slower music of the second one, depicting Kullervo’s youth. The themes and motifs are in almost constant transformation, and a few sustained spots in the second and fifth movements sounded unusually like the music of Janáček! Vänskä kept things under very tight rein, somehow bringing stunning transparency to even the most thickly scored sections; as at the opening of the second movement, the repeated downward filigree motif in the first violins was not only executed with stunning precision but dazzlingly atmospheric. The third movement introduces chorus, soprano and baritone to tell the tale of Kullervo’s seduction and rape of his sister; Päivi Nisula and Hannu Niemelä convincingly conveyed the roles with an almost Mussorgskian flair, and the narration, sung by Helsinki University’s amazing YL Male Voice Choir, matched the drama and passion of the soloists. The orchestra held nothing back in the weighty, colorful fourth movement “battle scene”, which includes portents of Sibelius’s later Lemminkäinen Legends. The opening pianissimo string trills of the closing fifth movement give way to the dramatic choral entry, and one of the most startling moments in Sibelius’s early works — the sudden shift from unison voices, as was used throughout the third movement, into a brief polyphonic section. The slow, evocative narration of the tale of Kullervo’s suicide seemed to fly by despite the mostly moderate tempos, culminating in the coda’s final, heroic climax which Vänskä, choir and orchestra carried off to absolutely shattering effect.

One would not expect an encore following this demanding work, but Vänskä led a performance of the choral version of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” that was breathtaking, concluding what was easily the finest concert I’ve heard so far this season.

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