Seen and Heard Concert
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
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
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
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.
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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