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From Finland’s Forests

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/28/2011 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Opus 61
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6, Opus 104 – Symphony No. 7, Opus 105

Lisa Batiashvili (Violin)
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (Music Director and Conductor)

O. Vänskä (© Minnesota Orchestra)

While the prospect of Osmo Vänskä conducting Sibelius is not quite in the pantheon of James Levine conducting Mozart, it isn’t far behind. In fact, while some conductors make lumpy ersatz Bruckner out of Sibelius, last night brought us a Finnish conductor who had understood Sibelius from childhood and had conducted splendid Finnish and Scandinavian orchestras before jointing the Minnesota Orchestra.

Vänskä’s Minnesota Orchestra may be in the American heartland, but the heritage of that state is Norse woodsmen, Finnish furniture-makers, and a genetic inheritance which takes to Sibelius like a salmon takes to the Gulf of Bothnia. The orchestra doesn’t have the finesse of Chicago or New York, but the playing is pungent, sharp, powerful. Maybe their muscularity isn’t fit for more hermetic French music, but their choices last night were totally right.

Mr. Vänskä chose two Sibelius symphonies for the second half, and predictably, a few dozen people in the audience left after the Sixth, thinking one was enough. But not only were the Sixth and Seventh totally different works, but Mr. Vänskä changed pace dramatically.

Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony is rarely played here, since it seemingly doesn’t fit the Sibelius mode. Does one think of that crusty, hard-drinking Finn as pastoral? Charming? Light-hearted? Hardly. Yet that was the way Mr. Vänskä conducted this work. The string choir at the start, and the woodwind choir at the beginning of the Allegretto were conducted like Wagnerian “forest murmurs”, Sibelius’s few negative sounds from the bass clarinet were outweighed by a light lithe third movement, and a finale which only hinted at the usual triumphant endings.

If the Sixth was a Sibelius “Pastorale”, the Seventh was an “”Eroica”. Beethoven’s format, though, was clear. Sibelius retained his amorphous style, the fiery climaxes rising and falling, but becoming more and more incandescent.

This one-movement piece could bee Sibelius’s best, and Mr. Vänskä treated it the way it should be. The orchestra was well-paced the lines were clear, the essential tensions were held without once flagging. It was a bold brave symphony, and Mr. Vänskä understands this kind of majesty.

L. Batiashvili (© Mark Hamson)

The opening work was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. No, let me revise that. It was a violin concerto primarily written by Beethoven, with additions by Bartók, Brahms, Berg, Shostakovich, maybe even Vivaldi.

The work was played, you see, by that wonderful Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili using the two Alfred Schnittke cadenzas originally written for Gidon Kremer. And for this, the late composer pulled out all the stops–literally. The first cadenza was based on the drum taps, but then went on to do some wild things with the violin (would you believe quadruple-stringing? Glissandi-trilling?), along with quotes from other composers.

The last movement cadenza was equally audacious, with Ms. Batiashvili and the timpanist playing quarter tones against each other, more quotes, false starts, false stops.

Someone in the audience whispered that it was “vulgar, not Beethoven at all.” Well, Beethoven never wrote his own cadenza, and Beethoven was audacious, iconoclastic, he took the most “vulgar” Ottoman Turkish march and stuck it into the sublime finale of the Ninth Symphony. So let it be vulgar. It was as wildly good fun as the Beethoven’s last movement itself.

For the record, Ms. Batiashvili did blur some of the passages of the concerto itself though not the cadenzas. As for the tone coming from her Stradivarius, it was not audacious.

Harry Rolnick



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