sat 19/10/2019

Prom 43: BBCSO, Vänskä | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 43: BBCSO, Vänskä

Prom 43: BBCSO, Vänskä

A surprise and two disappointments from the world's leading Sibelius conductor

Lengthening shadows and pines: two ingredents Sibelius notes for his Sixth Symphony

Nearly 10 years ago to the day, an almost unknown 24-year-old Venezuelan conductor came a cropper when valiantly stepping in at short notice to conduct Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony at the Proms. (His name was Gustavo Dudamel. Whatever happened to him?) To pull off successful performances of Sibelius’s seven symphonies you need not just the ability to fire up players but the intellectual grasp to grip their elusive, fluid structures.

So after handing the first four symphonies in this year’s anniversary cycle to relatively young guns Thomas Dausgaard and Ilan Volkov, the BBC was taking no chances by giving the last three to Osmo Vänskä, the world’s most experienced Sibelian. Vänskä has famously recorded close to everything Sibelius ever wrote – not least his game-changing cycle of the symphonies on BIS – and he nearly blew the roof off the Royal Festival Hall in 2010 in his thrilling cycle with the London Philharmonic. Even the performances in that cycle which didn’t quite come off were ignited by his trademark microscopic attention to orchestral detail. But it was that, however, which surprisingly gave rise to an increasingly nagging doubt that surfaced last night: is it possible to have conducted a work too often?

Osmo VanskaThe poise with which Vänskä (pictured left by Greg Helgeson) began the Fifth Symphony was harbinger of things to come. But if he was aiming for spaciousness – a wise move given the Royal Albert Hall acoustic – what he ended up with, oddly, was stateliness at odds with the writing. He visibly galvanised the BBC Symphony Orchestra into collective excitement with the first movement’s galloping final section, but the only way that tempo appeared to relate to his faintly stolid opening was by illustrating his display of the work’s potential extremes. A gloriously played mournful bassoon solo aside, tentative woodwind entries and lapses of ensemble only underlined the lack of gradual growth that is Sibelius’ hallmark. 

Spaciousness made much more sense in the second movement. Vänskä’s handling of the lightly tripping rhythms created a charged atmosphere in which the almost inaudible pianissimos appeared to be coming from miles away. From there, he led headlong into the final movement, but even here his choices overwhelmed what should be the absolute sense of the music’s inevitability.

The same problem dogged the performance of the groundbreaking Seventh. It opens, arrestingly, with a simple, rising C major scale on the strings given gripping tension by the double-basses following with the exact same scale just half a beat later. That, at least, is the theory. The thrillingly determined double-basses of the Berlin Philharmonic sent a visceral thrill through the Barbican when they played it for Rattle earlier this year. Here, the same musical line just sounded like an inconsequential milky echo. The highlight of the single-movement span was the section for strings led by ravishing cello and viola-playing. Vänskä made it sound valedictory and it was so sonorous and sustained it made you long for him to record Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Theme of Thomas Tallis

It was in the rather neglected Sixth Symphony that Vänskä was at his least intrusiveBut once again, that individual concentration upon a spotlit section was at the detriment of the overall flow. Unless the music’s utter inexorabitlity is underlined, this symphonic ear-opener simply doesn’t deliver its greatness. The final two-note resolution of C major can be anything from triumph to desperately hard-won resolve. What it shouldn’t be is merely the finish to a series of illustrated sections.

The disappointment of the Seventh was all the more poignant given Vänskä’s magnificent command of the Sixth. This is the most abstruse of the cycle, not least in the fourth movement whose final bars, unlike those of Five and Seven, slip enigmatically away into silence. Vänskä made rare and complete dramatic sense of the ending. And that was the hallmark of his approach to the piece as a whole. His control of dynamic range and detail lit up moment after moment but, crucially, never at the expense of the unfolding of the music’s all-important flow.

If any of the three symphonies needs assistance to deliver its mysteries to an audience it’s the rather neglected Sixth. Ironically, it was here that Vänskä was at his least intrusive. It felt like hearing unvarnished Sibelius, not his interpretation thereof. Sad to say, on this occasion, his performances of the better-loved ones sounded like someone so busy displaying his ongoing fascination with these multi-faceted masterpieces that he didn’t allow us to see the wood for the trees. 

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms

An increasingly nagging doubt that surfaced last night: is it possible to have conducted a work too often?

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I'm not sure you mean "ineluctable" (unavoidable, inescapable) when referring to the Sixth Symphony - from the context, "elusive" would be more appropriate. More to the point, I disagree with your view of the performance of the Seventh, which moved me to tears and I thought the best I've ever heard (although I agree strongly with your comparison with RVW, which came through clearly in this performance).

Vanska is surely the greatest conductor of Sibelius since the late Paavo Berglund. This was not his greatest night, but by the standards of almost any other conductor, it was outstanding. The Seventh was for me the best of the lot - but even there Vanska was competing with himself. I remember an even more transcendental performance he gave in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra years ago, when he was their Chief Conductor. But these are minor quibbles: it was a privilege to hear these performances.

Not for me he isn't. The hard-hitting approach often works against natural organic growth. I can name you four other conductors I'd rather hear in Sibelius, three of them Finnish, one Estonian. But on the radio the Seventh did sound good, at least until the ending which is so tricky to get right (Berglund did). It also had the best trombone solo I've ever heard from the peerless Helen Vollam.

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