Vänskä Essentials: an unexpected arrival

Storming to the top of my list of Vänskä Essentials is a performance which was broadcast on the radio of Beethoven's Symphony No 3 'Eroica' given by the Minnesota orchestra under the conductor in September 2006. This strikes me as just about the most stunning interpretation of the work I've heard in 20 years.

Some years ago I set about a project of analysing the qualities of seven favourite Eroicas which blew my mind. There was one weak point in that I wanted to include in the survey a version which used the then new Barenreiter Critical Edition edited by Jonathan Del Mar. At the time the best of a worthy bunch was David Zinman's version with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on Arte Nova. It’s still a lean mean interpretation of note. But I yearned for someone who could combine Karajan's sound, Furtwängler’s passion, Toscanini's vehemence, Monteux's lyricism (and disregard for Wagnerian additions to the score) and while it might be churlish of me to want some of Klemperer's weight, it certainly has Klemperer's far sighted objectivity. Now I think I have found many of those qualities in this live Vänskä performance.

I should add that I found his BIS CD recording - with the Minnesotans - lively and probing, but ultimately just a little scientific. And I still haven't heard any performances from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra live cycle he did some years ago so can’t compare it with those. Vänskä seems top me to capture a great deal of emotion in this reading which - thanks to the relationship he has with the orchestra - was picked up by the players and reciprocated back to conductor and audience.

It is evident from the very start that Vänskä means business as he plays the opening chords quite literally as crowd stoppers - they crack out like rifle shots over the audience applause, silencing it in a trice. The first movement has all of the confident swagger one associates with "romantic" readings of the symphony, but none of the sluggish accretions or posing. The orchestral balance is sublime – that subtle interplay of inner string groups reminding me of the Monteux RCO recording but obviously in much better sound. The standard of the playing is marvellous with woodwind ensemble to die for. But there’s a huge surging forward momentum – similar to the best of Toscanini and Karajan, and perhaps uniquely a feeling of space within that.

The second movement is deeply moving- as it should be. Spare, as Karajan’s last recording demonstrates, need not be thin and weak and so it is with Vanska using the full orchestra when need to stoke up the tension but never pressing so hard that the symphony loses its classical scale. The hammer blows in this movement do not have the horrific “knife in the ribs” quality of Klemperer or Karajan: but they do make their mark. The coda is sublime – helped by a rapt audience and some of the finest woodwind phrasing you’ll come across.

Vänskä’s interpretation of the Scherzo & Trio was one of the finest things on the BIS CD – the Minnesotan horns blaze, each with a characterful tone yet still an ensemble. The movement has a joyous freedom reminiscent of Monteux’s interpretation. In both when you listen beyond the melody you hear the feverish hurry of Beethoven’s conception. What a joy!

The last is the hardest movement to bring off in all of Beethoven, IMHO. The Eroica finale is fiendishly hard to play in classical style, as it needs to be fast and virtuosic. It lulls into a warm bath like stupor in romantic vein: indeed some felt for Furtwängler it became an irrelevance (though I’d contest this). Monteux brings it off by eliding it into a playful mode which has a light balletic mood – there’s a lot of sense in that given the source material for the melody and the Scherzo before. Toscanini – who conducted it in portentous style in 1939 but as a victorious hymn after the war was a magician in this movement: I still don’t quite know how he did it. Klemperer was efficient but none of his natural ebullience came out sadly. Karajan cracked the technical problem of playing it fast and not furious and his exultant hymn is one of the most moving.

My analytical view of Vänskä’s reading is not yet fully formed but it does all of the things above to my mind – save Toscanini’s wizardry which is perhaps overtly Romantic in purpose. He has great woodwind soloists who when required reveal a full tone in a classical setting – the lessons of speed and phrasing from the authentic movement being brought into the modern age. The rapt oboe solo, supported by the rest of the wind band, has a heartbreaking simplicity which reminded me the golden days of the BPO – soloists in an ensemble. The faster music is breathtaking in it control, pace and fire.

You should hear this reading because it will re-affirm your view of the music above all as a living testament to Beethoven’s humanity. Like Glenn Gould, I don’t necessarily buy the idea that everything Beethoven wrote was musically ground breaking. But I do think Beethoven achieved a level of person to person communication which most of us don’t share with our living friends, let alone a man who has been dead since 1827, to do so through dots on a page, a single conductors response to them and then rely on his or her ability to get 100 people to think in the same direction is quite a feat.

So if you think you’ve heard all the Eroicas that you need to hear – and I was nearly there, or that Beethoven’s day has been and gone, catch this if you can and hear the next phase of our relationship with Beethoven.


Popular Posts