Prom 14: Inextinguishable Partnership

Tapiola, Op.112
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.4, Op.29 (Inextinguishable)

Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom marked the conclusion of Osmo Vänskä’s Chief Conductor-ship of the BBC Scottish Symphony, and the dedication with which he has raised the orchestra to an often pre-eminent position among the BBC orchestras was evident throughout the evening.

With the emotional breadth and inner intensity of a work several times its length, Tapiola is never an easy work to programme. Vänskä’s forward-moving but never rushed basic tempo emphasised its elusive, capricious nature over purely formal continuity, though there was nothing episodic about the continual metamorphosing of its salient initial idea. If the later stages, especially the searing string threnody prior to the final cadence, could have been invested with even greater power, the clarity and concentration which Vänskä brought to Sibelius’s final masterpiece was never in doubt.

To follow this with Mozart’s A major concerto, the most delicate and vulnerable of his crowning series of piano concertos from 1785-6, made for an apt foil. Stephen Hough’s lightly-inflected approach worked well in the chamber-like discourse of the opening ’Allegro’ and playful motion of the closing ’Rondo’, but the central ’Adagio’ needs more than just limpid phrasing if its emotional depths are to be uncovered. Hough’s own first movement cadenza – with its close-interval harmonies and ’blue’ chords, segueing a little too abruptly with the orchestra – was diverting, though Chick Corea and Mozart is less of a match made in heaven than might be supposed.

An incisive, high-octane account of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony sustained the positive impression made by Vänskä’s Prom performances of the Second and Sixth Symphonies in recent years. Utilising the whole of the RAH stage made sense, as did raising the two sets of timpani slightly above the brass. Some of the excellent string playing was obscured in tutti passages, though these had all the impact this defiant, passionate music needs.

Vänskä steered the outer movements with unflagging drive, while ensuring the light-textured intermezzo was piquancy itself and the slow movement has the right smouldering intensity (a pity that the finely-honed string contribution in the hushed central section was undermined by a less than attentive audience). The duelling timpani were superbly focused, and Vänskä followed the letter of the score (all too rarely done) in ensuring that the final recall of the first movement’s clarinet theme really hit the ground running. This is music that, as the subtitle confirms, does not so much end as continue out of earshot.

The normally taciturn Vänskä looked moved as he acknowledged the spontaneous and enthusiastic applause. His concerts with the BBCSSO have been among the highlights of recent Proms seasons and, though he will no doubt appear here with his Lahti and Minnesota orchestras in future, it is hoped that the present concert is only the end of one phase of his association with the Glasgow-based orchestra.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday, 1 August, at 2 o’clock

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