Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä Joshua Bell in London

Slonimsky’s Earbox
Violin Concerto, Op.14
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Joshua Bell (violin)

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Osmo VänskäFive years together and Osmo Vänskä is clearly well ensconced as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, their first appearance at the Barbican Centre having gave notice of a potential which was amply fulfilled by this return visit. Unlike many present-day conductors, Vänskä still believes in the presence of a curtain-raiser and Slonimsky’s Earbox (1995) supplied exactly that – John Adams here fusing his minimalist instincts with a modally-derived harmony (courtesy of Stravinsky) such as sustains the 13-minute whole with a driving energy that briefly alights on more meditative concerns before the scintillating close. A telling commemoration of Nicholas Slonimsky – the twentieth-century lexicographer bar none – as well as a test of virtuosity that the orchestra passed with flying colours.

Joshua BellThe American theme continued with the Violin Concerto (1939) that finds Samuel Barber’s brand of neo-Romanticism at its most spontaneous and unforced. Superbly as Joshua Bell dispatched the solo part, it was Vänskä’s handling of the orchestral writing that really commanded attention – bringing a clarity and harmonic astringency (the role of the piano imparting an unexpectedly Stravinskian edge) to offset its prevailing melodic languor, as in the Andante’s plaintive oboe theme (meltingly delivered by Basil Reeve). The swift underlying tempo meant the first movement for once emerged as a true Allegro – the climactic return of the main theme capping a breathless sense of anticipation built up in the central development – and if the final Presto cannot help sounding divorced conceptually from what precedes it, Bell’s keen virtuosity and the Minnesota’s alacrity of response ensured its ‘moto perpetuo’ never let up. Bell responded to the ovation with Souvenir d’Amérique by Henri Vieuxtemps that utilises a quintessential American tune, its outsize technical demands acquitted with panache.

Vänskä’s recorded output with the Minnesota Orchestra has so far centred on a cycle of Beethoven symphonies for BIS that can fairly be regarded as the finest in recent years – not least in that it marries an ‘authentic’ regard for textural clarity with an expressive intensity such as relatively few conductors bring these days to ‘standard repertoire’. With the ‘Eroica’, the issue is a reconciling of Classical symphonic form with the greater harmonic density and formal expansion with which Beethoven endowed the genre.

If, in the first movement, Vänskä did not quite sustain a cumulative momentum during the exposition repeat, his maintaining of coherence throughout the development (notably the control of tension into its fugato) and his demonstration of the thematic unity behind what can seem an overly prolix span was unstinting. The reprise was then intently launched, and Vänskä’s refusal to underline what are passing cadential resolutions enabled him to sustain the tonal trajectory through a coda whose sense of arrival was the more conclusive. The ‘Marcia funèbre had just the right degree of austere intensity – Vänskä less emotionally unyielding than is often the case, without overworking the music’s inherent pathos. Rarely has the contrapuntal expanse at it centre been so lucidly rendered or the transition back to the main theme sounded so ominous, while the coda was the more affecting for its restraint.

Lively rather than athletic in its overall pacing, more could perhaps have been made of the scherzo’s uniquely shimmering sonority, though the Minnesota horns came robustly into their own during the trio. Vänskä then launched the finale in ideal fashion, building its ‘Prometheus’ theme with nonchalant poise and finding a jocular swing in the minor-key episode. While not breaking continuity as such, the holding-back of tempo during its latter stages surely made too much of the ‘poco andante’ marking; nor did the coda, for all that it securely drew together the thematic threads of what is probably the earliest instance of ‘symphonic variations’, clinch proceedings with quite the decisiveness needed. Yet in seeing the movement as an intently evolving whole, and the degree to which he reaffirmed its role within the symphony’s overall design, Vänskä currently has few equals. In terms of orchestral playing, too, the Minnesota brought forth a Beethoven sound ideal in its combined trenchancy and immediacy.

Sibelius’s Valse triste might have seemed an unlikely encore, though in Vänskä’s hands it had a drama comparable to a much longer work and thereby divested itself of any salon associations and was a telling end to a memorable concert.

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