Joshua Bell & Osmo Vänskä

Symphony No.101 in D (Clock)
Stabat mater
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77

Helena Juntunen (soprano), Monica Groop mezzo-soprano) & Scott Hendricks (baritone)

Joshua Bell (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Osmo VänskäTwo joyful works in D major flanked a very fine performance of Szymanowski’s “Stabat mater” in this BBC Symphony Orchestra (and Chorus) Prom under Osmo Vänskä. There seemed to be no specific rationale for this middle work in what otherwise was an apt pairing of Haydn and Brahms, but the volt face change of mood certainly worked, and the three pieces did illustrate not only the orchestra’s (and Vänskä’s) versatility but also works from three centuries.

Well known at the Proms from his days with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and latterly both with the Minnesota Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Vänskä is a wonderful musician and also extremely watchable, whether crouching almost to the ground to encourage a pianissimo (and how quiet did the BBC musicians play for him!), or forsaking his baton to mould the slow movements. But his gestures are contained and proportional: his instruction for a build-up of speed all controlled in the wrist and quivering baton. Thus he was aware to all the possibilities of Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony – the tick-tocking slow movement tightly controlled as a contrast to the abandon of the opening and, especially, the spirited finale. Down to two double basses, the sound was light but precise: a lesson of how to play Haydn on modern instruments.

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Bill PhelpsAfter the interval, Joshua Bell’s performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto was equally thrilling. Cool customer that he is (both he and Vänskä were in black, contrasting with the BBC men in their white-jacketed summer plumage), it all seemed amazingly effortless, but with no suggestion of routine. Bell’s own first-movement cadenza was a refreshing change to the usual Joachim one, nicely melding with the romantic thrust of Brahms’s genial work. The wind solos that open the slow movement were exquisitely judged and matched Bell’s sensitivity, while the gypsy rhythms of the finale were gloriously infectious, especially with Vänskä’s spontaneous re-creation of the accompaniment.

And, as if that wasn’t enough for an excellent Prom, the middle work outshone those flanking it. Szymanowski’s heartfelt setting of the Latin “Stabat mater”, the text translated into Polish, and informed by the death of the composer’s beloved niece Alusia Bartoszewicz, is the antithesis of Haydn’s bustle and Brahms’s fervour. Set for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, Szymanowski is economical in their use, rarely asking all to perform together. Magically, in this performance, the a cappella fourth movement was sung from memory, a testament to the skill of the BBC Symphony Chorus and its guest chorus-master Aidan Oliver (erroneously, not mentioned in the programme). Each movement has its distinctive aura, and the soloists – who only sing together in the final movement – responded as eloquently as did the orchestra and chorus. This was definitely one of the standout Proms.

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