LPO/Vanska - Wagner, Beethoven & Sibelius 30/04/08

Wagner, Beethoven & Sibelius - Osmo Vänskä returned to London 30 April to give another concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. What appeared to be a rather lopsided concert with Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture followed by Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (soloist Lisa Batiashvili) in the first half and a second half devoted to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. As it transpired the emotional balance was just right: nothing, but nothing could have been paired with Vänskä’s reading of Sibelius’ most desolate work.

Proceedings got underway with the Wagner Overture. There’s little to interpret here and Vänskä guided the orchestra well enough but there were some problems of communication I think, perhaps through limits on rehearsal time. As with pervious meetings the conductor’s efforts to change the dynamics see to be fruitless. In an overture when you generally want the trombones to dominate, their sound was mushy and muted. As is increasingly the case in European orchestra, the horn and trombone tone seem to be very similar.

The Beethoven Concerto was offered with smaller forces but the dynamics troubled me again. Batiashvili and Vänskä were partnered in this work at the Proms eight years ago and what astounded me then – and still astounds me – is this violinist’s willingness to look Beethoven straight in the eye. She creates a touching, humane reading of a work and is not cowed by its reputation. It was notable for two other reasons – Batiashvili was heavily pregnant and still applied the full force of her playing to this long work. Midway through the first movement she broke a string on her Strad and despite the pause, there was no loss of concentration from the soloist, players or audience. She is a remarkable violinist as she is able to make the most difficult passagework seem straightforward, yet she applies her considerable talent without fuss or show. Vänskä is a very fine accompanist and the LPO clearly enjoyed this reading and played with greater commitment and some style.

After the interval I’d guess 10% of the audience failed to return to their seats. More fool them, because what followed was another memorable performance from the leading Sibelius conductor of his generation. This orchestra and conductor played the Third symphony a couple of years ago and I was distinctly under whelmed by the player’s lack of commitment – it was pretty drab. This time is was better but not without problems – that said the playing at least showed some measure of attention to Vänskä’s well-crafted reading. The care Vänskä lavished on the strings in the opening movement paid massive dividends – the rich sheen shone through for the first time in the evening. The woodwind solos were well mannered and the brass bold and firm. There was little spontaneity but then this is a tremendously difficult score. For example the orchestra were clearly unprepared and/or unable to respond to the fiery tempo Vänskä set at the beginning of the finale. All were at their best in the quiet music, especially the strings.

At the centre of everything that went on in this performance was Vänskä. The nuances of the score were brought out to overwhelming effect to produce a reading which left me, as it should, with a feeling of complete hopelessness and desolation. Vänskä usually insists that all he does is remain faithful to the score – and he did. In doing so he heightened the highs to the point of near hysteria, the lows were quiet, immense and bottomless. And most scary of all were the silences. When the last doomed chords sounded, there was no hope, and Vänskä’s arms simply fell to his sides as though completely useless. It was as though he was stunned by the consequences of what he and the orchestra had just delivered. It may not have been perfectly played, but it was of the most memorable performances of any work I have ever attended.


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