Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 12 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Bathed in the curious dappled lighting that has plagued us this season, this vaguely Baltic programme attracted a relatively small crowd which included a mobile phone user, several influenza victims and a clutch of the people who insist on dropping things in the quiet bits. A shame really given that breathtakingly hushed pianissimos are Osmo Vänskä’s stock in trade.

Lutosławski’s Mi-parti may have been revived to mark the 10th anniversary of the composer’s death but, as we hear less of his music these days, any excuse will do. Lutosławski was long a familiar figure at the Proms and his own invigorating (analogue) recording remains in the lists. On this occasion the piece started so quietly that some members of the audience appeared unaware that the concert was underway. Bravely unfazed, Vänskä made much of its radical textural contrasts, supercharging major bursts of energy with the deep-knee bends of a champion skier to which the orchestra responded with an enthusiasm it later tended to keep in reserve. The composer had a fabulous ear of course, infinitely more refined than that of today’s post-modern pretenders. And yet it is only in live performance that the totality of his personal vision is fully realised. Such music, including Lutosławski’s trademark aleatoric sections, needs to be seen as well as heard.

More Polish creativity next and, given the long-standing partnership of Leonidas Kavakos and tonight’s conductor, one hoped for something special, idiomatic or not. This is Szymanowski’s other, ostensibly plainer Violin Concerto, currently receiving far fewer outings than its predecessor. Some commentators play up its Bartókian aspect yet in this reading the folk-derived passages seemed more like the icing on the cake. What mattered was the heady flow of lyrical invention projected, perhaps a little uniformly, by a soloist always immaculately in tune and unfashionably consistent in matters of tonal projection. Kavakos’s sweet warm sonority and generous vibrato wowed the Promenaders without quite assuaging doubts about the staying power and focus of the work itself. Vänskä, newly equipped with a stick and at times dangerously demonstrative with it, elicited a sympathetic accompaniment.

An old Finnish favourite for the second half, and a score in which Vänskä’s sometimes unpredictable rethink invited comparisons with an earlier BBCSO concert performance under Sir Thomas Beecham (just about to re-appear on BBC Legends). Half a century later, the band plays Sibelius 2 that much more tidily of course and Vänskä prefers more rigidified tempos and sharper edges throughout. The fondness for knife-edge dynamics is not perhaps unique to him – Rattle goes for similarly extreme point-scoring – but under Vänskä the slow movement’s hushed F sharp major idea is barely touched in by whispering strings. A glorious moment this which commanded rapt attention. As a clarinettist himself, Vänskä consistently refines and re-balances Sibelius’s familiar textures to let us hear woodwind lines, whether in his tautly drawn, anti-Romantic movements 1, 3 and 4 or his epic treatment of the second, here transformed into a shaggy symphonic poem embracing vast contrasts of tempo and sonority. The opening of this movement was anything but perfunctory with cellos and basses given the space to characterise every ghostly pizzicato, an effect only partly undermined by intrusive noises off from the RAH corridors. The first movement, marked Allegretto after all, was so light, lithe and succinct as to seem little more than an upbeat to it. The third-movement scherzo was I felt rushed into inarticulacy while the finale avoided grandiose rhetoric to such an extent that the lurch into its main theme sounded almost perverse in its understatement. The final peroration made its usual mark for all that the orchestra sounded a bit thin. Or at least did so from my vantage point – a good seat when the hall is full but one that lets you hear the sound waves ricocheting from the back of the arena when half-empty.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was I believe the first London orchestra Vänskä conducted in concert – as recently as November 2001 – and it will not be the last, although this concert was not the unmitigated triumph one might have expected. At least the audience refrained from applauding between movements.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 23 August at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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