Mostly Mozart Festival in New York – Beethoven/Vänskä & Sudbin

Coriolan Overture, Op.62Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93

Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 15 August, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center takes on a distinctive, summery appearance for the Mostly Mozart Festival each August. The Hall is reconfigured to bring the stage thirty feet forward, with sound reflectors hanging overhead and audience members seated behind and on both sides of the performers. This produces an acoustic that is more lively and clear than is usual.

This was the second of two performances of an all-Beethoven programme conducted by Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. Vänskä has recently completed a five-year project of recording the complete Beethoven symphonies in Minnesota, but here he was conducting a smaller ensemble – just under thirty string-players – yet drew a robust sound that not only was forceful enough to do justice to Beethoven’s music, but also seemed to strike a nearly ideal balance with the rest of the orchestra.

Osmo VänskäVänskä is hyperactive on the podium, often to the point of distracting the observer, although his communication with the orchestra is evidently quite successful. One wonders whether the same results could not be achieved with less-demonstrative gestures. Following the dramatic opening chords of the Coriolan Overture, Vänskä emphasised the contrast between the agitated theme representing Coriolanus – a Roman general who had fled prosecution and returned at the head of an alien army – and the tender, lyrical theme of his mother’s plea to spare Rome from attack. His acquiescence is made clear in the overture’s concluding passages, where the fleeting allusion on the cellos to the general’s theme fades away to soft pizzicatos. The strings carried off this gentle ending most effectively.

Yevgeny SudbinVänskä and the young Russian (London-living) pianist Yevgeny Sudbin teamed up for a performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto marked by joyous spirits, depth of contemplation and regal grandeur. Following Sudbin’s solo introductory passage, Vänskä and the orchestra performed the extended orchestral segment with an earnestness worthy of an opening movement of a symphony. Piano and orchestra then partnered well, maintaining a nice balance between them, with Sudbin demonstrating fine articulation in scales and runs and brilliantly negotiating the passagework of the first of the two cadenzas Beethoven wrote for this movement. The alternating dialogue between the piano and orchestra in the Andante con moto was engrossing, with the two voices alternating at first, and only later intertwined. It seemed almost as if the piano was complaining that the orchestra was paying no heed to its more gentle expressions. Sudbin created palpable tension with his persistent trills and runs and then relieved it with soft arpeggiated chords at the movement’s end. Vänskä managed the segue into the finale before applause interrupted (as Mostly Mozart audiences are wont to do), and then provided excellent support for Sudbin’s ebullient performance.

After intermission, Vänskä began Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as soon as he ascended the podium, thus stifling the welcoming applause. He took the opening at such a quick tempo that it felt rushed, with one phrase virtually crashing into the next, yet maintaining excellent balance among the instruments and taking full advantage of the antiphonal seating of the violins. The winds succeeded in producing a characteristic Beethovenian sound, and the timpani just the right degree of forcefulness. All in all, the resulting sound was most agreeable and quite appropriate.

The Eighth Symphony is the only one for which Beethoven did not provide a ‘proper’ slow movement. Vänskä did not permit the Allegretto scherzando to become metronomic despite its persistent rhythmic character. Here the winds excelled in carrying much of the melodic freight right up to the movement’s insistent conclusion. In the Minuet that followed, the trumpets and timpani stood out in accenting the theme and underscoring its characteristic rhythm. The trio featured lovely contributions from the horns and outstanding clarinet solos. The rapid string figures that begin the Allegro vivace were performed excellently, Vänskä maintaining a steady pulse. Although the principal theme is carried mainly by the violins, the winds were also major contributors, as when the bassoon played leaping octave figures, at first accompanied only by timpani and continuing beneath a flute and oboe duet. The persistent principal theme ultimately reasserted itself, driving relentlessly toward the extended coda, with timpani forcefully – perhaps too forcefully – accentuating the closing chords.

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