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Review 2: Duke Bluebeardís Castle & Beethoven Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Barbican Hall, February 22nd, 2004 (SN)




Osmo Vänskä has attracted quite a following during his time in Europe - there were many nationalities in the Barbican audience and a contingent from Finland is normally in attendance for his Proms. These Vanskyrie know what to expect from the conductor: highly charged, dramatic interpretations, inner structures revealed and a highly contrasted dynamic range with very quiet pianissimos. I suspect many had come to hear how the new partnership with the Minnesota orchestra was shaping up. The good news is that orchestra and conductor appear to be enjoying each otherís company and work together to produce wonderful music. The players are very much in accord - full of vigour and self-confidence. Vänskä reportedly rehearses hard, but he doesnít let up in concert; he is animated on the podium encouraging the players with every sweep of the arms, punch, grimace and smile.

Vänskä conducted a great deal of Beethoven with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, including a cycle, and a new cycle, on the BIS label, has been announced with the Minnesota orchestra. His reading of the Fourth is a grand affair and the orchestraís playing of what is the hardest of Beethovenís symphonies to bring to life, was dynamic. I particularly liked Vänskäís continued emphasis on the string sections - he punched home the string syncopations moving across the podium to stand directly over the players. The arrangement of the strings helped this: (from the right) second violins, violas, celli, first violins and bassi behind the first violins & celli. And this was not a slimmed down string section with 12 in each violin section. The effect of this enhanced detail from the strings was to make the work less about its rather awkward legato lines and more about the drama interjected between and under the melody. Thus, the symphony sounded much closer to the Fifth Symphony, with even more harmonic colour and drama, and less a poor relation. The woodwind in this orchestra are very smooth and unflustered with a notably sweet sounding bassoon.

There was another element too - there was excitement amongst the players. One sensed that they were in "the zone" taking their skills to the edge, taking risks and exploring heights. A work which is too often low on drama and energy was delivered with a tremendous appetite.

Vänskäís first season in Minnesota has offered varied programmes and one might have hoped for more than two works in the Barbican programme. Bartokís only opera is a high-risk venture for both the box office and a travelling orchestra. It stands or falls on the contribution of the soloists: in this concert we had two of the best. Komlosi and Kalmandi have recorded these roles and sung them across the world - indeed one wonders if they are tired of them yet. They showed no sign of fatigue - the concert hall setting drew strong singing which was clear and bright. It is unsurprising that two Hungarians were able to deliver every word clearly and shade nuances perfectly to add to the drama. Kalmandiís Duke stood to attention, motionless throughout, as though weighed down by his own guilt from the start in an ironic gesture towards Judithís fate. Komlosi was beautiful, wilful and a little crafty: her voice is strong but not strident, cutting through the orchestral tone.

This unfolding catastrophe was gripping - the variety of Bartokís invention, as well as the narrative line of the horror, were presented expertly by these singers. Vänskä and the orchestra were more than supporting actors. The orchestral colours were revealed in a seamless line - much better than the bumpy episodic performances I can recall from the past. The music showed a common ancestry with Ravelís Gaspard and Debussyís tragic loverís in Pelleas et Melisande, but with a Hungarian accent and vigour.

It is a big score to deliver and Vänskäís players never showed signs of weakness, despite their arduous schedule over the past two weeks. The reciprocated applause from soloists to orchestra to conductor showed yet again the respect and confidence of all involved.

Stephen North

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