Minnesota Orchestra

Barber
First Essay for Orchestra, Op.12
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Mahler
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Llŷr Williams (piano)

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 24 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Minnesota Orchestra achieved some fame during the 1950s and 1960s as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, through its exposure on the Mercury LP label. At that time the orchestra sounded fairly lightweight and lacked the individuality of the leading American orchestras of the day, the ‘big six’. Some 40 years later, under its tenth music director, very little has changed.

In Samuel Barber’s First Essay, first heard in 1938 conducted by Toscanini, the string tone was clear, but hardly rich, the brass had clarity and definition and the woodwinds sounded homogenous, but bland. Osmo Vänskä’s interpretation featured well-chosen tempos and every change of mood was captured.

Originally this Prom was to have included Dawn Upshaw in the UK premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Three Songs” but her illness demanded a change of work (Golijov’s work was written for her) and Llŷr Williams stood in with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (a piece he was already playing elsewhere on the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour).

The first movement’s orchestral introduction was very slack with recessed brass and some distracting ppp rhythmic pointing. When Williams entered his tone was shallow, there was no attempt at dynamic variation or rubato and his playing of scales came dangerously close to being mundane. Much the same could be said of the orchestral accompaniment, which was unvaried and slack. Indeed, the orchestra looked and sounded uninterested.

For the central Largo the tempo was too slow, Williams made little use of the sustaining pedal, the strings lacked bloom and there was no individuality of expression from the woodwinds. The finale started more promisingly with far greater orchestral attack and the rhythms danced. But when the soloist entered we were back to a dynamic range that never ventured beyond forte and there was a complete lack of humour. Llŷr Williams seems to want to sound very classical and detached, but in this concerto he ended up being plain dull.

Osmo Vänskä is of course noted for his conducting of Sibelius and some years ago I heard him conduct the on-tour BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in Symphony Hall Boston. The opportunity to hear him conduct Mahler, a composer that he is coming new to, was a point of interest.

However, the opening trumpet fanfare was shaky and out of tune and at the forte outburst the strings and woodwinds were completely swamped by the brass. Vänskä’s decision to continue with antiphonal violins may have been a contributory factor, but much of it comes down to the string sections being fundamentally weak and lacking in projection. Vänskä’s tempo changes were reasonably natural and he did make the ‘furioso’ section seethe, but too often the tension was allowed to drop and the phrasing was uniform.

Mahler marked the second movement to be played with great vehemence but the opening double basses and general orchestral attack was insubstantial; and in the slower sections concentration slipped. The movement was diffuse, the chorale seriously under-powered. The same issues affected the scherzo, with the added problem that the woodwinds, both individually and collectively, were lacking in punch and character. The strings did come into their own with a very fine performance of the Adagietto, taken at a suitably slow tempo, and with an otherworldly ethereal quality that was very beautiful.

Unfortunately the finale was again uniform and under-powered, with successive climaxes failing to gather power and momentum. The chorale’s climactic re-appearance was weak and for some reason at its conclusion there was a sudden ritardando followed by an equally sudden accelerando, which robbed the coda of coherence and impact. Disappointing.

As a lively encore was a little something from Vänskä’s native Finland, the Sakkijarven Polka, in an orchestration made by the conductor.

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