Two Finns, one great recording
This disc, coupling two sharply contrasting works, is the second installment in Osmo Vänskä's projected set of Jean Sibelius' seven symphonies, on the Sibelius-smitten Swedish label Bis, with the orchestra he has groomed for a decade. It follows last year's Grammy-nominated traversal of the Second and Fifth symphonies; Nos. 3, 6 and 7 remain to be recorded. The cycle is slated for completion in 2015 — the composer's sesquicentennial year.
Prefaced by Burt Hara's spellbinding account of its opening clarinet monologue (which I've been replaying obsessively since this disc arrived in the mail), Vänskä's First grips the listener from the outset. At times it can seem a bit hectic and driven — far removed from, say, Leopold Stokowski's rhapsodic 1976 recording with its ripe, Russian-accented romanticism. But Vänskä's energy-to-burn approach pays abundant dividends, particularly in the Finale, where he captures the music's wildness and makes the most of its goose-bump moments. The orchestra, which sends sparks flying at every opportunity, is stunning in its discipline and conviction.
The Fourth Symphony (1910-11), written a dozen eventful years after the First, is one of 20th-century music's darkest utterances, and draws from Vänskä a performance of magisterial austerity — to my ear, the conductor's finest achievement on disc to date. The Largo, with its interrogative intensity and funereal tread, seems bottomless; the elusive final movement, in which a vein of lightheartedness emerges but proves unsustainable, is compellingly unfolded. Anthony Ross' desolate cello solos haunt the memory.
These superbly engineered recordings were the last to be made in Orchestra Hall before its renovation, and the last made by the Minnesota Orchestra before management locked out its musicians in October. They document an extraordinary marriage, much worked-at, of conductor and ensemble. It's the nature of such marriages to be somewhat fragile, especially in times of adversity. Let's hope that this one can survive the current troubles.