Orchestra gives Sibelius' darkest work its due

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2012 - 5:52 PM

REVIEW: The program -- a virtuosic trifecta -- also included a superb performance by violinist Christian Tetzlaff.

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Christian Tetzlaff

Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi, Star Tribune

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Twin Cities concertgoers have been regaled with a good deal of first-rate Sibelius in the course of Osmo Vänskä's tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra. But I'm not sure that any previous performance has risen to the heights of Vänskä's account Friday of his countryman's century-old Fourth Symphony.

"Regaled" is hardly the right word for the bleakly existential Fourth -- the black hole of Sibelius' symphonies. This is no evocation of the northern forest (on which descriptions of Sibelius' sound-world so frequently lean). It's a grim, interior landscape: Erik Tawaststjerna, the composer's foremost biographer, labels it a "document of the age of psychoanalysis." All four movements end without resolution; Tawaststjerna calls the score's last page "a path into nothingness." The death-haunted largo, perhaps the greatest music Sibelius ever wrote, was played at his funeral.

Vänskä's approach to this gripping, unlovable symphony is magnificently uncompromising. Textures are stark, edges hard; there's a hushed intensity that compels attention. The mirage of high spirits in the final allegro is especially wrenching.

Guest violinist Christian Tetzlaff had the unenviable task of following Sibelius. But Tetzlaff was fortunate in his choice of Karol Szymanowski's First Concerto (1915-16), a spellbinding, Dionysian romp of a piece that seems to float through a series of exotic environments -- "full of perfumes and Persian carpets," as another distinguished violinist puts it.

Szymanowski's often-stratospheric writing for the soloist is almost unimaginably lyrical, and Tetzlaff, his tone voluptuous, made the most of every ecstatic, rhapsodic opportunity. At times this sober German musician seemed ready to levitate. Vänskä and the orchestra were his full partners in lushness. Szymanowski, the finest Polish composer after Chopin, would have been pleased.

Batting clean-up in this memorable program was Zoltan Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" -- Galanta being a town between Budapest and Vienna where the Hungarian composer spent much of his youth -- an irresistible mingling of foot-stomping rusticity and winged orchestral fantasy. Vänskä and the band play it with their characteristic depth of tone and rhythmic drive.

Tetzlaff was forced to cancel several upcoming appearances in the Twin Cities due to a family emergency in Germany. The Schubert Club is canceling the Monday night show and said it hoped to reschedule at a later date.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is figuring out a new program for next weekend, when Tetzlaff was scheduled to perform three concerts, doing music of Mozart.

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.

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