Prom 50: Vänskä
There was a time when I wouldn’t miss a Vänskä prom but in recent years I thought he and I were going our separate ways - disappointing concerts at the Proms and with the London Philharmonic and lack of contact with his work in Minnesota caused me to pause before listening let alone attending his concerts and when I did hear a few I was left wondering where the magic had gone. That said powerful memories persist of his Petrushka (2000), his Vaughan Williams Sym No 2 (2001), his Sibelius Sym No 2 (2004), Barber Essay No 1 (2006) and Szymanowski Stabat Mater (2009). More recently his Brahms Violin Concerto left me gob-smacked - a slick and mannered attempt at the piece, I thought and his Beethoven Sym No 9 (2010) left me cold. So I didn’t go to this Prom but I “tuned in” as the now hopelessly old fashioned phrase has it....
Beethoven: Egmont - Overture
I have struggled all along with Vänskä’s Beethoven in that I have found much to admire but little to warm to. This fast despatched overture all heat and fury contains - when I listen again - subtle nuance but so little of it is given time to speak. It’s very fine in its way - too much athleticism for my money.
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
This combination always had a lot of potential to be special - Michael Collins with a basset horn complete with all those lush over tones, Vänskä the meticulous flowing Mozart conductor AND the fine clarinetist himself. The unknown quantity were the BBCSO whom I’m sorry to say I’ve found a bit patchy this Proms season. There was, it turned out, so much to be grateful for. Collins used the lower voiced instrument to fill the hall with sound and what a sound that man makes, utter divine. The concerto moved with some much grace and style it was like the richest, lightest chocolate soufflé - not a hint of excess or rhetoric. Vänskä conjured the most eloquent playing from the orchestra who sounded more relaxed than in any concert I’ve heard them in so far this Proms season. Utter enchanting, formidably musical and breathtaking communing with that 6000 strong audience.
Collins gave us a exquisite encore - Finzi: Romance from his Five Bagatelles, supported by the orchestra which was just as melting as the Mozart though with a tremendous melancholy about it (that after Vänskä had gone backstage to find him his clarinet barrel!). This was the kind of masterful accompaniment for which Vänskä was renown in his earlier days - it seemed to be back on this turf with this orchestra. Leastways, I hadn’t heard him this sympathetic in support of a soloist in London in recent years. It was a jewel.
I heard a recording of Bax’s Tintagel from Vänskä’s time in Scotland which sold me on a piece a long time ago - he later went on to do it with a recalcitrant London Philharmonic in a performance which wasn’t as good which is now available on disc. I didn’t like it much n the night but the power to seek out the driving forces in this kind of music was evident. It was also evident in this performance of Eventyr (Once Upon a Time) by Delius. I try very hard with Delius and I’ve auditioned and re-auditioned several performances in this Proms season which celebrates the composer’s 150th birthday. Eventyr is a tone poem like those of Sibelius and Grieg and its not as immediately effective as either I think. But Vänskä dug deep and found an inner drama as he had down on those works listed above. It drove the piece along: so often what Vänskä finds is a way of giving pieces momentum. And I found myself warming to it and grateful to him for shining a light on the music and bring out its beauty.
Nielsen: Symphony No 5
But the Delius was as nothing to the performance of Nielsen’s war music that followed. This was a tense, taut tightly argued performance which was well paced and illuminated but in which, had they had in the Sibelius 2 the decade before) the BBC Symphony Orchestra feed off Vänskä’s lead to produce a performance that will long live in my memory for commitment and power. It was fiery, uncompromising stuff: delivered at times with the beautiful simplicity of Mozart and at other with the rhythmical drive and tenacious phrasing which marks out great performances of 20th Century music. On the cusp of a new kind of music Vänskä caught that transitional quality: it buzzed and fizzed with a nervous excitement of players on the edge but never sounding insecure. Like a fast car cornering in the wet, the senses were tested, the sinews were stretched and it was all one could do to keep everything together in one's head - this is the way to render Nielsen’s most anxious symphony. I wish I had been in the audience - and I’m grateful that BBC iPlayer allowed me to hear it again. What a piece, what a performance. Vänskä reminds us of what a great conductor he is.