Play Carnegie? Try Finnishing school

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2011 - 11:38 PM

The Minnesota Orchestra under Vänskä and violinist Batiashvili gave stunning accounts of Beethoven, Sibelius.

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

One sure way is to play like Georgia-born violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose radiant account of the Beethoven concerto Wednesday in Orchestra Hall had me holding my breath for dangerously long stretches. Another is to play Sibelius like the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, whose electrifying realizations of the great Finn's final two symphonies share this week's program. New Yorkers will hear that program Monday.

From his study of 33 recordings of the Beethoven concerto spanning some 76 years, musicologist Mark Katz concludes that over the decades performances of the work have become less emotive and mercurial, more contemplative and serene. What's remarkable about Batiashvili and Vänskä, who first collaborated in this piece as long ago as 1999, is their ability to have it both ways. There's plenty of forward motion and tensile strength, but also a wonderful meditative ease. The soloist's golden tone, liquid bowing and spotless intonation at stratospheric altitudes give the music a celestial glow; the coda of the opening movement, with its pizzicato accompaniment and its hushed duet between violin and bassoon (John Miller Jr.), is magical.

Batiashvili plays the admirably ambitious, seldom-heard cadenzas by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-98). Controversial in their day -- one miffed reviewer compared them to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa -- they now seem part of the history they conjure; the collage-like first-movement cadenza alludes to concertos by Berg, Bartok, Shostakovich and especially Brahms. (Shostakovich also supplies Batiashvili's savory encore, an arrangement of his "Lyrical Waltz.") Schnittke's own violin concertos would profit from Batiashvili's attention.

Sibelius' Sixth Symphony has been called the Cinderella of his seven; perplexed critics have labeled it nonchalant and impassive, unruffled and recondite. Vänskä, happily, will have none of this. In his hands, the symphony sounds human and worldly; the music sometimes races but never drags. The last movement, in particular, gives off unaccustomed sparks before fading into silence.

From gripping opening to abrupt close, the single-movement Seventh Symphony is simply stunning. The music's meltings and morphings, its tensions and relaxations, are meticulously realized; Vänskä, the big picture always in view, is careful not to peak too early. R. Douglas Wright's bell-in-air trombone solos have an epic grandeur: If this is what Finnish nationalism sounds like, sign me up!

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

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