Vänskä finds marvels in the Austrian composer's glory-strewn Symphony No. 4, known popularly as the "Romantic."
Reading the Minnesota Orchestra's publicity and program notes for its current performances of Anton Bruckner's glory-strewn Symphony No. 4 ("Romantic"), you might think that a musicologist -- self-deprecatingly defined by the late Karl Geiringer as "a professional musician who cannot play an instrument well nor sing or compose music, but who delves into its history" -- is a person of consequence. In this instance, you'd be right.
Sharing the orchestra's spotlight this week is musicologist Benjamin Korstvedt, formerly at the University of St. Thomas, whose 2004 critical edition of the Fourth Symphony, embraced by conductor Osmo Vänskä, restores to circulation the final, 1888 version of a work first "completed" in 1874. (Though many musical scholars have little discernible effect on our 19th-century-centered concert life, Korstvedt and colleagues are indispensable guides through the maze of manuscripts, revisions, rescorings and redactions known collectively as "the Bruckner problem" -- a tangle that no admirer of the Austrian composer can long avoid.)
Korstvedt also has written sagely on the evolution of Bruckner performance style -- a topic that has everything to do with the experience of today's listener. On early recordings, Korstvedt hears a dramatic, mercurial approach, marked by flexible tempos, which he compares favorably with the mystical monumentality and unified tempos lately in vogue.
It's not clear that Vänskä, though partial to brisk pacing and airy textures, is ready to heed all the professor's stylistic suggestions. The conductor's account of the Fourth is a marvel nonetheless, with wind-friendly balances, snappy rhythms, and energy to burn. The Schubert-like andante and the rustic trio are high points; the finale, for once, seems a fitting climax. The orchestra sounds resplendent, the brass especially so.
Paired with Bruckner on Thursday's Orchestra Hall program (to be repeated Friday in the radically different acoustics of the St. Paul Cathedral) was Sir John Tavener's "The Protecting Veil" (1989), with cellist Steven Isserlis, its dedicatee, as soloist.
Tavener's work divides listeners; some find it profound, others pseudo-spiritual. Much as I love some of his shorter pieces ("The Lamb," for example), I'm most often among the skeptics. And so it was on Thursday: Despite the austere beauty of Isserlis' tone and the rapt concentration of the orchestra's strings, "The Protecting Veil" felt interminable.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.