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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 37: Lutoslawski, Szymanowski, Sibelius, Leonidas Kavakos (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Royal Albert Hall, 12th August 2004 (SN)


Osmo Vänskä has become something of a Prom’s favourite since his first appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra in 1995. Not for the first time he chose 20th Century music for a programme which was as challenging in its treatment of the familiar as it was in its presentation of the obscure.


Lutoslawski’s Mi Parti is hard music, though easy on the ear. It alternates passages of written out notes with sections requiring improvisation from orchestral sections. Helpfully the programme notes liken the climaxes to the dawn chorus - which is a useful analogy. Vänskä conducted without a baton making clear movements to delineate the blocks of music: this paid dividends with the audience too who sat quietly during Lutoslawski’s extended pauses. The essence of the successful advocacy of this kind of music is confidence and it was clear that the audience and orchestra were equally comfortable with Vänskä as their guide.


The fiendishly difficult, and by reputation unlucky, Violin Concerto No 2 by Szymanowski followed with Leonidas Kovakos as soloist. Kovakos is an unassuming presence on the podium - but he lets his playing do the talking.) His relationship with Vänskä stretches back to the recording of the final and original versions of the Sibelius concerto for BIS.) The Szymanowski is hardly an overplayed concerto, perhaps because both orchestration and solo writing are so demanding. There were times when the intricate lines were swallowed by the RAH acoustic, but that didn’t obscure the glory of Kavakos’ playing and the skill with which Vänskä and the BBC SO were able to offer support through Szymanowski’s rich orchestration. The work requires their kind of serious advocacy and the result was rewarding because soloist and orchestra alike revealed a craggy fortitude that one hopes to find in works of this period.


It was interesting to see that even after the audience applause subsided the players of the BBC SO continued to clap Kavakos. His modest stage demeanour reveals an artist of humility - his playing reveals an artist of depth and awesome technique.


The RAH was only about three quarters full for this concert: no doubt some were put off by the first half. But many were there for the second half and they were richly rewarded. The orchestral response to Vänskä’s demands was of the highest order showing that on their day this band are amongst the best in Europe - with brass and woodwind, to my ears, on a par if not beyond those of the lauded Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.


Vänskä is, even amongst the current crop of excellent Finnish conductors, noted for his interpretations of Sibelius. And part of his thinking about the approach to the composer is revealed in the excellent Cambridge Guide to Sibelius. He does not presuppose a heroic Sibelius triumphing at the end of every symphony. Nor does he try to force this composer into a European mainstream. Instead he reveals an individual voice which is involved in a serious dramatic intent of making the symphony great. To compare Sibelius to Mahler or Tchaikovsky misses the point - he is a new voice.


Vänskä achieves a great deal by treating Sibelius as a modern composer, whose works are constructed with an integrated, ever changing, melodic and harmonic character - closer to Messiaen than Brahms. Vänskä interprets the Second Symphony as consisting of blocks which reveal tremendous tensions, especially in the second movement. The method is to generate a kind of psychological stress which is much more personal and subtle than that of Mahler.


Vänskä’s reading at this Prom did not differ hugely from his BIS recording - but the fine playing of the BBC SO (with a body of over 60 strings) was a notable plus. The revelation of the tension inherent in this work is slow and hard-bitten. The effects that Vänskä calls for include a swift and full-throated first movement and a strident and tense slow movement. The ppp’s were achieved with little fuss (Vänskä crouching on the podium to the extent of the dampening required.) At the start of the slow movement he set the strings off and then stood motionless through the pizzicato section. Players relish such trust.


The third-cum-fourth movement had the feeling of unfinished business and unresolved disquiet - akin I think to a tense family dinner or bar room disagreement. The writing here is sublime as pedal points, recurring figures and glorious conclusions - that turn out to be anything but - combine to a crucial release in the final bars. The orchestra’s full-throated response was magnificent. The audience responded with rapturous applause borne I think mostly because Vänskä had made them work hard and think hard about the piece.


The orchestra were thrilled. Afterwards, outside the hall, one player told anyone who was willing to listen that he’d been in tears during the final moments of the symphony. Vänskä got a special reaction from hard bitten BBC players who must have played this piece so many times. One hopes Vänskä’s concerts will become annual events at the Proms and that we get to hear the Minnesota Orchestra in the RAH. Press reports of an even closer association with the BBC Symphony may be wishful thinking, but they reveal just how much we miss him.


Stephen North

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