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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Rautavaara, Elgar, Shostakovich: Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), RFH, 16th December, 2004 (AR)


Osmo Vänskä became internationally recognised through his association with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in his native Finland, as well as in the UK with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted many works by his compatriot composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose tone poem Isle of Bliss (based on the life of the nineteenth century Finnish poet Aleksis Kivi) opened this well-balanced LPO programme. There was something unashamedly lush and romantic about this somewhat saccharine score that gave the LPO, especially the warm, expressive strings, a chance to pull out all the stops.


Early this year I heard Edward Elgar's symphonic Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 with Gil Shaham, whose purity of tone and tranquil intimacy strikingly resembled Julia Fisher’s conception. She, like Shaham, rose magnificently to the multiple emotional challenges that this score presents but with her own distinct voice. Fischer’s was a subtle, serene and searching interpretation.

From the very opening bars Fischer held her audience mesmerized by her rich, deep tone; it was clearly evident that we were in the presence a world-class virtuoso. Her shifting moods throughout the Allegro revealed for me nuances of emotion and sensation not experienced before; she made the work even greater than I could have imagined. In the Andante her lyrical and feather-light playing was delicately reflective and subdued, with her exquisite sounds being barely present, as if played from afar. The closing of this magical movement was the best I have heard, with soloist and orchestra blending perfectly as they glided together into silence.

The Allegro molto is one of the finest things Elgar wrote, reaching the depths of the soul. This is evident in the long accompanied cadenza (which is both the core and structural climax of the work). Here the orchestra’s strings create a sensation of shimmering light and shuddering being. The strings are instructed that the pizzicato tremolando should be thrummed with the soft part of three fingers whilst the violin plays. The LPO strings achieved this chilling effect to perfection - something that is very rarely, if ever, achieved in a studio recording. Fischer’s scintillating sharp tone gave an impression of a razor cutting through air – a sublime experience. This contrasted starkly with an earlier point in the movement when Fischer took on a refreshingly rugged earthiness, in keeping with Elgar’s boisterous celebratory mood. Vänskä and the LPO made the score sound appropriately symphonic and weighty whilst never subsuming their soloist. For her encore she played Bach’s Sarabande in D minor with a simple stately serenity.

Whilst Ms. Fischer records exclusively for Penta Tone classics she should be signed up by a major recording company immediately as she is an artist of the highest order and a has maturity well beyond her age.

Osmo Vänskä showed a particular affinity with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D minor. The opening passages were broadly taken with conductor drawing a dark ‘European’ sounding string tone from the cellos’; indeed, throughout this performance Vänskä achieved a steady throbbing bass-line from the cello’s and double basses giving the reading sombre tones and more subdued moods.

By taking this movement far slower than usual (but never making it sound ponderously dragged out) Vänskä teased out a greater sense of tension and dramatic contrasts, giving the central climax extra emotion and percussive bite; the brass in particular played with a growling menace. The music had such a strong sense of concentration and intensity that it never sounded too slow: this is the hallmark of a great conductor and reminiscent of Celibidache’s broad readings. The sardonic second movement sounded strikingly similar to the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony under Vänskä’s idiosyncratically expressive and humorous hands. Here this jovial music had the appropriate raucous ruggedness and lilting bite with acidically pointed woodwind, punctuating percussion and deep grunting cellos.

The Largo was incredibly intense and highly concentrated, with Vänskä again securing a deep string sound and having total control over its vast structure: this is the very heart of the score and conductor and orchestra realised it to perfection: the alien woodwind solos sounded like lost souls pining in the wilderness of the soft strings. In the climactic moments the cellos and double basses were even richer and darker than earlier, playing with intense expression and weight.

Vänskä’s controversial interpretation of the concluding Allegro non troppo is the same conception as that of Rostropovich, treating it as an elongated, exaggerated parody of the bombastic ending of the typical classical symphony – like the fifth symphonies of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. This is most evident in the closing timpani and bass drum passages, which are meant to be deliberately dragged out to give the sensation of a hollow victory, as Shostakovich is said to have intended. This radical interpretation gives an uncanny and paradoxical sensation of being both bombastic and triumphant while at the same time sounding utterly empty and full of despair. Had Stalin heard the subversive irony in these closing bars Shostakovich may well have been sent to Siberia, the Gulag or worse.

The timpanist and bass drum played the closing bars with precision and aplomb and the final thud brought the house down. This was a concert to relish and remember and I hope to see both Julia Fischer and Osmo Vänskä back in London very soon.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Elgar Violin Concerto: Jascha Heifetz (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor); London: 1949: Naxos Historical CD: 8-110939.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Arthur Rodzinski (conductor): London: 1954: MCA: Millenium Classics: MCD: 80112.



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