Sibelius, Symphonies, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, O. Vänskä (BIS, 2001)
Aho / Nielsen, Clarinet Concertos, M. Fröst, O. Vänskä (BIS, 2010)
Vänskä's calling card is the Sibelius symphonies: he has recorded them with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and the lockout debacle interrupted a second one with the Minnesota Orchestra. Sibelius biographer Andrew Barnett has noted that in the symphony on this program, No. 3, Sibelius "turns his back on the national Romanticism of the First and Second symphonies, but has not yet adopted the bold modernism of the Fourth." Some conductors, Barnett observed, "have failed to meet its interpretative challenges; some have refused to conduct the work at all." Vänskä, who knows his way around this score, paced the symphony expertly, helping to shape the gradual blossoming of sound in the long crescendos of the first movement, layering the instruments onto the mass with careful attention to detail. The development, with its unexpected intervallic writing and ppp dynamic, was mysterious, followed by a final crescendo powered by an ostinato pulse of sixteenth notes, with the horns riding the crest of the wave.
The main problem with the symphony is a tendency among many conductors to take the second movement too fast. The tempo marking ("Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto") is ambiguous, but according to Barnett, "Sibelius left no doubt that he intended a slower tempo, as favored by almost all Finnish conductors. In the 1980s Jalas also confirmed to me that Sibelius himself conducted the piece in six, not in two." Vänskä started beating in six, but then made clear distinctions between 6/4 and 3/2 patterns, which are juxtaposed and sometimes simultaneous. It felt like a graceful, melancholy Finnish slow dance, with that lovely gooey melody on the G string of the violins. The scherzo part of the hybrid third movement was a little Mendelssohnian, with lightly skittering violins and flutes, but the finale introduces what Barnett rightly identified as "hymn-like, almost religious elements," a broad tune that is taken up, section by section, to a powerful conclusion. (The composer once described the movement as "the crystallization of thought from chaos.") If the ensemble unity of the NSO was not always optimal, it seemed to be connected to the fact that Vänskä's right hand often stopped conducting the beat, as he preferred to cue with his left hand, leaving the orchestra sometimes at a loss, or so it seemed.
Anne Midgette, Conductor Osmo Vänskä and the NSO stumble a bit at the Finnish line (Washington Post, April 25)
---, After longest labor dispute in U.S. orchestral history, Osmo Vänskä considers his options (Washington Post, April 19)
Mendelssohn's fourth symphony (A major, "Italian") seemed a let-down after that first half, particularly because the ensemble issues worsened, especially in the violins, who have a lot of notes to play. Vänskä went for a sense of energy and edge in the first movement, not pushing the funeral march of the second movement too fast and keeping the third movement soft and delicate. The pacing of the finale, extremely fast, did not show the NSO in the best light.
This concert repeats on Friday and Saturday night.