Sibelius symphony rendered colossally

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 9:15 AM

REVIEW: Osmo Vänskä conducts a masterful version of the Finnish composer's First.

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Yevgeny Sudbin

I admired Yevgeny Sudbin's 2010 CD of solo piano music by Haydn, but have been somewhat less enthusiastic about his performances of Beethoven concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. This made me impatient to hear Sudbin's Mozart. And I'm pleased to report that the Russian pianist's account of the towering C-minor concerto (K.491) on Thursday was worth the wait.

The work -- a tug-of-war between darkness and light in which darkness seems to prevail -- is one of Mozart's most dramatic, and at times in the outer movements Sudbin and Vänskä seemed to underplay its drama. I wanted a slightly harder edge, with less consistent beauty of tone and moments of greater gruffness. (Even though Vänskä used a much-reduced string complement, his orchestra occasionally masked the piano.) But the power and eloquence of Thursday's account were beyond dispute, thanks in no small measure to remarkable wind playing.

Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto; Sudbin, to his credit, has written his own. The first of these, unabashedly romantic in rhetoric and sonority, was especially impressive. Presumably it will be preserved in the forthcoming BIS recording by these performers, to be released in conjunction with the complete piano concertos of Beethoven.

Flanking the Mozart were two first symphonies, by composers who each wrote seven. Prokofiev's wry and athletic "Classical" Symphony (1917) is animated by the spirit of Haydn, and in its formal provocations and harmonic misbehavior it is worthy of the earlier master (who believed that listeners' expectations are made to be undermined).

Thursday's performance was one to savor. Balances were deft, tempos sane and the first violins' laughably stratospheric entry in the Larghetto -- one of the more cruelly exposed passages in the entire orchestral literature -- was spot on.

Sibelius' First is another matter. Commentators often slight it for its debt to the Russian romantic symphonists, particularly Borodin and Tchaikovsky. In Vänskä's hands, however, it sounds like no one but Sibelius.

From the desolate clarinet monologue that launched the piece to the enigmatic pizzicato chords that concluded it, Thursday's account was simply colossal -- a thing of almost unfathomable tension, electricity and contrast, driven inexorably forward by a great conductor at the top of his game. I don't know if this is what Sibelius wanted, but I'm convinced it's what he should have wanted.

  • MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

    What: "First" symphonies by Prokofiev ("Classical") and Sibelius (Op. 39), plus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 with soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, all conducted by Osmo Vänskä.

    When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.

    Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

    Tickets: $22-$84. 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org.

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