The Sibelius Connections
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Jean Sibelius: The Wood Nymph, Opus 15 – Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 47
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92
Leonidas Kavakos (Violin)
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (Music Director and Conductor)
Osmo Vänskä (© Greg Helgeson)
The Finnish Musical Renaissance is exploding in America, but few of the retinue of conductors, singers, and composers are hung up on Jean Sibelius. They have great respect for the Master, of course, but they have other rows to hoe (tone-rows, for instance). The exception is the explosively talented conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä. Not only does he perform the composer frequently (and happily for a Scandinavian-settled state which reluctantly accepts Finns), but he has unearthed dozens of works by Sibelius. In fact, he, and BIS Records, have vowed to record every note, including revisions, which Sibelius ever composed.
Certainly The Wood Nymph, a tone-poem which predates Finlandia was new to most of the audience last night, including this listener. Despite the title, though, this is no paean to nature. The Wood Nymph is a rather gruesome tale of a handsome young man who goes to a party and then discovers the party isn’t for humans at all!! It’s apparently for avians. And the handsome guy, seduced by a wood-nymph, can never find peace, drying a poor tormented man.
No, I don’t understand the meaning either, but this tone-poem did show a Sibelius with the most brilliant marches, clashing brass, and a heroic beginning, just what a good party should be. Then comes the inscrutable bird seduction. The strings rustle softly, mysteriously, the orchestra shudders and shakes. It was very dramatic Sibelius, and it didn’t let up. Sibelius was not known for his humor, but when he parodied Wagner’s Liebestod, it was a gorgeous moment, conducted with the utmost authority by Maestro Vänskä.
Outside of the symphonies and Finlandia, the most popular work is the Violin Concerto. And rightly so. It is even used for dramatic purpose in the recent Italian movie, Il Divo. Hardly 20th Century, it is a moody romantic extremely difficult work, but a great artist can instill personal passion from the very beginning.
Greek violinist Leonidas Kavacos, who won the Sibelius Competition, and was the first to record the original score of the Concerto, played with an engaging sweet tone, and a personal style which at times swept a fraction faster than the orchestra. He did have one problem, when the chin-rest failed, and he traded violins with the Concertmaster in the last movement. His fingers flew as well as before, but the tone of the instrument was noticeably darker than his own instrument. Perhaps because he passed that test, the audience insisted (and received) a little solo encore.
After the intermission came the Beethoven Seventh, which would usually be described as “explosive.” While enjoying Mr. Vänskä’s conducting enormously, I couldn’t stand it. All four movements drove ahead, faster and faster, with hardly a moment’s break, with nary a pause (“There’s never a fermata around when you need one”) or contrast. Even that lachrymose second movement, which is still a cabalistic enigma, was simply another dance tune. As for the finale, the Minnesota Orchestra played such a hell-for-leather furiant that one could hardly make out the notes. And yes, Bacchic fury is well called for here, but the sameness was more related to a Mosolov simulation of an iron foundry than Beethoven.
It was impressive for the orchestra, yes. But the result was whizzing speed without even a glance at the scenery.