Prom 50: Osmo Vänskä & Michael Collins

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Eventyr (Once Upon a Time)
Symphony No.5, Op.50

Michael Collins (basset clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Osmo Vänskä. ©Greg HelgesonThe current Proms season has made a feature of music by Frederick Delius, the 150th-anniversary of whose birth fell this January, and this programme included a rare revival of his ballad Eventyr (1917). Dedicated to and first conducted by Henry Wood (albeit not at the Proms), this is one of the most intriguing of the composer’s orchestral pieces: its subtitle, ‘Once Upon a Time’, points to inspiration in the Nordic myths with which he had long been conversant; though the translation of its main title (as ‘Tales of Adventure’), more clearly denotes the restless and capricious nature of the work’s first half in its astringent harmonies, ominous percussion and brace of shouts (here pre-recorded by the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus). Maybe the second half’s textural richness and expressive languor feels more inherently Delian, but the work overall ranks among his most distinctive utterances and received a suitably engaging performance – the BBC Symphony Orchestra responding with conviction to the incisive direction of Osmo Vänskä, who will hopefully return to it and soon.

Michael Collins. Photograph: first half of this Prom pursued an overtly Classical trajectory, with Michael Collins at his lucid best in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (1791). Performances on the basset clarinet (or at least a reconstruction of it) have become increasingly frequent, yet the instrument’s additional four bass notes make less of a difference to the solo part as such than to its definition against the modest orchestral forces – making for an extra lightness and buoyancy in the outer movements, and an Adagio that here was pensive rather than valedictory. It helped to have a conductor who was formerly a professional clarinettist at the helm – Vänskä ensuring an accompaniment of real poise and insight. A delightful performance; and Collins returned (now with the familiar clarinet in A) for the ‘Romance’ from Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles (with piano) – in the elegant transcription for strings by Lawrence Ashmore – whose wistful eloquence was unerringly conveyed. Prior to the Mozart, Vänskä had opened proceedings with the Overture to the incidental music that Beethoven wrote for Goethe’s play Egmont (1810): a curtain-raiser which has retained its familiarity when so many other such pieces have succumbed to the seeming non-overture policy evident in present-day concerts, and which made its greatest impact here in the darting anxiety of the development as well as an apotheosis the more thrilling for its rhythmic clarity.

Vänskä’s previous Proms visits have included three Nielsen symphonies (2, 4 and 6), and it was the Fifth (1922) that ended this concert, and often considered of two halves in more than just its formal structure. So it proved during this performance with the first movement yielding some surprising shortcomings. After a tense and pulsating opening section, that marking the arrival of the side drum was incisive rather than ominous and the ensuing dialogue of woodwind and horns felt unduly unremarkable – something not helped by distinctly uneven horn-playing. The Adagio second half was more focussed overall, Vänskä building its expansive main theme to a noble peroration which, whatever its marginal lack of surging intensity and a less than visceral side drum ‘cadenza’, evinced a powerful sense of arrival which was itself thrown into relief by the ruminative coda into which it subsides. Why, though, is the side drum’s recessional thought best rendered by an offstage source and from the opposite side of the platform?

The second movement was almost entirely successful – Vänskä finding the right forward-moving tempo for the initial Allegro (and not sticking exclusively to the critical edition), which segued without loss of momentum into a Presto that had impact besides impetus. After which, the ‘slow fugue’ of the andante was persuasively rendered at a steady though never sluggish tempo that connected absolutely with the return of the opening music and on to an apotheosis which capped all that had gone before. Pacing these final bars is of the essence in making this happen: Vänskä struck a well-nigh ideal balance between following the score and adding a little interpretative licence, so ensuring elation as well as decisiveness.

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