Vänskä’s Sibelius Crisp, Bright, Buoyant

Sibelius cover

SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 3, 6 & 7 / Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, conductor / Bis 2006

There are several different ways to conduct Sibelius, although not as many as there are for Mahler. You can conduct his music briskly with a light, almost dancing feeling à la Thomas Beecham; briskly with a taut sense of drive and tragedy, like Robert Kajanus or Arturo Toscanini; slowly with an airy, transparent sound such as the recordings of Leif Segerstam; or slowly with a lush orchestral sound pace Karajan. All work pretty well depending on the piece in question.

Here Osmo Vänskä, a name new to me, leads the Minnesota Symphony through performances of three of Sibelius’ key symphonies that are a compromise between the Beecham and Kajanus approaches…or perhaps I should compare him more to those modern conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen, who lead performances of such works in a straightforward manner with relatively strict (but not rigid) tempi, only very slight modifications of the line, and an interpretive feel that leans more towards objectivity than subjective emotion. This may sound like a negative, but to my ears it is most decidedly a positive. Having suffered through many a Sibelius symphony performance where the interpreter tries too much to add his or her spin on things and doesn’t quite hit the mark, I found Vänskä’s well-paced, beautifully contoured and occasionally spirited reading superbly refreshing. My own opinion on a lot of the other approaches is that some conductors try too hard to make something deep and meaningful out of music that, to my ears, is simply the composer’s musical response to the rather bleak nature sights of his native Finland.

I particularly liked Vänskä’s dance-like approach to the second and third movements of the Third Symphony; I cannot recall hearing their like previously, and I was particularly impressed by the conductor’s ability to carefully craft dynamics levels and contrasts. This care with musical levels is consistent throughout these performances, in fact, and I was particularly struck by both the orchestral clarity of these performances (aided by amazingly crisp sonics) and the beautiful sound of each section. The level of instrumental playing has certainly risen to a new level when an orchestra from Minnesota can stand comparison with the finest of earlier orchestras such as Georg Solti’s Chicago Symphony or the Philhrmonia of London.

Moreover, Vänskä’s way with the music never sounds rushed, as Kajanus and Toscanini sometimes could, despite his proclivity towards faster pacing. This is due, I believe, to the conductor’s excellent use of “space” within each phrase. Without bringing attention to it, Vänskä manages to relax the music while still moving it forward, a little device that not even Salonen, for all his skills, always manages to do. There is also color in his performances, particularly ice blue as in the opening of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony (small wonder the cover is in tht color), and this performance is even jollier and more inviting than Beecham’s. Heresy to Sibelius lovers? Bear in mind that lightness of touch does not preclude lightness of musical expression, and I assure the reader that Vänskä’s approach does not ignore or demean the musical values. Towards the end of the first movement, for instance, Vänskä gives us an appropriately dramatic turn of emotion.

Vänskä also rises to the occasion for the Seventh Symphony, though again stressing a somewhat brisker feel and lighter texture than his predecessors. One thing that I wondered about when listening to it was whether or not the Minnesota Orchestra was using straight tone in the strings: so many modern-day symphonies consider this to be a must for playing almost all music regardless of era. I came to the conclusion (and I may be wrong) that they were using a very light, skimming vibrato, but in any case the whole sound of the orchestra has warmth as well as crispness. The trombones, in particular, have a bloom on their tone that is all too rare in classical players (but not in jazz trombonists), and the horns are rich without being overpowering.

All in all, a pleasant surprise and a recording well worth hearing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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