Minnesota Orchestra (1)

Music for a Scene from Shelley, Op.7
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1888 version, edited by Benjamin Korstvedt]

Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Osmo VänskäOsmo Vänskä here made a welcome return to the Proms for the first of two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra, of which he has been Music Director since 2003 (and will be until at least 2015).

The well-balanced programme opened with a homage to Samuel Barber in the centenary of his birth: indeed, Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933) is a rarity such that its appearance would have been welcome in any case. Inspired by the dialogue between Asia and her sister Panthea in the second act of “Prometheus Unbound”, this hybrid of rhapsody and tone poem moves from a hushed, atmospheric opening towards more overtly expressive territory – though the eventual climax is deftly curtailed so as to effect a return to the initial calm. A trajectory handled by Barber with consummate skill, and finely realised – the climactic stage impulsive though not over-wrought – by the present performers.

Alisa Weilerstein. Photograph: Lucio LecceShostakovich’s First Cello Concerto (1959) followed in what was a Proms debut for American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. A confident and often commanding artist, she had a tendency to ‘lean’ on phrases and over-inflect the musical line so a lack of forward direction was sometimes apparent – notably in a Moderato that lost momentum heading into its (and the work’s) climax, then a ‘Cadenza’ (designated a movement in itself) which tended towards diffuseness in its earlier stages. That said, the interplay between soloist and orchestra during the former’s spectral closing pages were magically rendered, while the latter’s forceful continuation was trenchantly dispatched – its pent-up energy carrying over into a finale which, as with the first movement, was engagingly and even bitingly ironic in demeanour.

For his part, Vänskä secured playing of evident poise and refinement (this being the most classically scored of any of Shostakovich’s major orchestral works) from his Minnesota forces, thereby ensuring a viable balance with the cello as has not always been evident in this work at this venue. Weilerstein duly responded to the applause with a spirited reading of the ‘Gigue’ from Bach’s C major Suite (BWV1009).

Vänskä has been intent on ringing the changes when it comes to performing Bruckner. For his Proms account of the Third Symphony a decade ago, he opted for the 1877 version with the 1876 imprint of the Adagio; for the Fourth Symphony he chose the 1888 revision, itself recently issued in a new edition by Benjamin Korstvedt. This was the version most often heard as the symphony made its way into the repertoire over the first half of the twentieth century (to be superseded by the 1880 score as edited by either Haas or Nowak): given that the original 1874 version has been coming into its own, there is no reason why that of 1888 should not be reassessed. How one responded to Vänskä’s performance depends largely on how one responds to this version: as another attempt by Bruckner to find the most suitable context for his music, or as a sell-out that was all but forced on him by Ferdinand Löwe and the Schalk brothers. Certainly Vänskä’s rendering of the music’s formal evolution in terms of incisively dovetailed blocks rather than majestically rolling paragraphs was right for the formal continuity pursued here, while a tendency to short-windedness and over-inflection was doubtless in keeping with the detailed expression markings of this edition.

In the first two movements, the musical content remains that of the more familiar 1878/80 version – though myriad alterations to texture and dynamics dilate the strongly defined contrasts such as Bruckner had earlier been at pains to achieve. As a result the first movement seemed smaller in its formal dimensions and cramped in its tonal perspective, while the slow movement felt less a subtle play on march-rhythm than an ungainly intermezzo lacking mystery and repose. Similarly evened-out, the scherzo is given a quiet transition into its trio and a hefty cut made in its reprise, before ending on a crass perfect cadence. The finale loses the recall of its first subject in the reprise, and then the climax of the second subject is reined-in to avoid pre-empting a coda that features two soft cymbal clashes on its way to an apotheosis in which the salient motifs are given yet another configuration.

Throughout the performance, Vänskä steered the musicians with a clear sense of where the music is headed (if he has conducted other versions of this piece, there was no tentativeness or indecision here) though – unlike other conductors this season – he made no attempt to stem or control applause between movements, while a two-minute pause before the finale as the lead-cellist replaced a string could surely have been avoided by a simple ‘instrument swap’. This remained a characterful and mostly convincing performance of a version that numerous Brucknerians had clearly travelled to hear. Yet it is hard to believe that this revision – as with that of the often-heard 1889 version of the Third Symphony – was intended as a final statement of intent rather than to placate the convictions of others: the 1888 Fourth being best appreciated in terms of Bruckner’s struggle for acceptance.

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