Vänskä essentials

1) Debussy: Prelude l’apres midi d’un faune - BBCSSO live

The mood of this performance could be described as rapt but there was a relaxed quality reminiscent of sitting watching a sunset in a favourite chair with a drink in hand. Each part was beautifully delineated and well played but the real art is bringing the mood of a summer evening - or at least Debussy’s piano music to the orchestra. Not one note sounds forced, no tempo rushed and yet Vänskä never lapses into the lazy hazy days of summer. This reading had mystery, atmosphere and an unforgettable charisma.

2) Barber: First Essay - Minnesota Orchestra: Proms 2006 live

Vänskä’s relationship with this orchestra has been built on solid foundations of excellent playing. Here, they are in their element as advocates for under-performed music which should be heard in concert halls. It’s a fantastically compact piece which has many colours and moods and like the best of Barber’s works an almost Bachian drive. Vänskä conducted it like it was familiar territory to both orchestra - which it might well have been and audience which it certainly was not. His control of balances was very acute, important in a space like the Royal Albert Hall. This economical piece of music delivered full value from these hands and demonstrated that it is an ear for detail and knowing what to do with it, in which this conductor excels.

3) Sibelius: Symphony No 2 - BBCSO Proms 2004 live

There have been many fine readings of this symphony from this conductor - he is something of a specialist in revealing its personal agenda of hope. What distinguishes this reading for me is the biting drive of the orchestra. Vänskä is no more than an occasional guest with this orchestra and so one wouldn’t expect such fanatical commitment by the band. But they played out of their skins with an agility, incisiveness and collective emotional sweep which I have seldom encountered. It was all summed up for me as I left the hall and one of the players stood at the stage door telling anyone who cared to listen that it had been a fantastic experience - music making together beyond the notes. To highlight the depths of despair entertained in the slow movement is only to pick one of a million points of extraordinary commune between conductor, orchestra and audience.

4) Vaughan-Williams: Symphony No 2 ‘London’ BBCSSO Proms 2001 live

It has long been held that the best conductors of Vaughan-Williams music have been British - I don’t think that this is so. RVW’s music is international not least because of its debt to his teachers - in particular Ravel. His French polish is nowhere more lustrous I think than in the Symphony No 2 - A London Symphony, or rather as the composer would have it, a symphony by a Londoner. Vänskä conducts in the style of a Diaghilev ballet: RVW straight out of Daphnis et Chloe and Petrushka - indeed in his hands one wonders if the music has ever been danced on stage. It’s a work that can get bogged down in its parochial setting. Vänskä releases it dwelling on the fantastic orchestration - where RVW provides it, and the love story RVW writes to his changing country. The Scottish orchestra provide an elegant response to this piece of Edwardiana - maybe secretly enjoying the end of Empire it portrays.

to be continued....


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