Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 is the draw on this week's Minnesota Orchestra program, heard Thursday at Orchestra Hall. But the unexpected highlight was a stunning performance of Benjamin Britten's "Sinfonia da Requiem." Written on the verge of World War II, the three-movement work was intended by Britten as an antiwar statement. Ironically, it was commissioned by Japan, but rejected as too somber and too Christian.
Conductor Osmo Vänskä makes this complex score accessible and deeply affecting. After the "Lacrymosa's" opening growl of percussion and brass, the cellos usher in a dark, grim world. With the addition of winds and strings, the effect is mournful and numbing, with a ceaseless pulsating, like the dead march of soldiers.
The "Dies irae" (what Britten called a "formal Dance of Death") is a virtuoso movement for the whole orchestra, making particularly effective use of brass. Its expression of violence and chaos is resolved quietly in the prayerful "Requiem aeternum," but the terrors are never completely vanquished.
Another 20th-century rarity followed: Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. The work is in his neoclassical period, echoes of Bach blending with his acerbic astringency. Stravinsky was reluctant to undertake the concerto, feeling he lacked knowledge of the violin. In fact, he begins with a wide-ranging chord that the original soloist told him was impossible to play. Eventually, it came to open all four movements.
Soloist Viktoria Mullova easily mastered the work's technical demands, but her playing was somewhat faceless, blending into the orchestra's aural landscape. Her reticence did not take away from her warm, plummy tone in the cantabile "Aria 2" or swirling virtuosity in the Capriccio finale.
Vänskä knows his Beethoven and captured both the wit and the sophistication of No. 8. From his bold opening attack, he emphasized the work's exuberance, while maintaining its Rococo elegance. He made the most of the humorous Allegretto scherzando that substituted for the traditional slow movement. And in the Menuetto, he balanced Classical grace with Beethovian robustness. The dancing Allegro vivace finale was the capstone to a program that provided a powerful emotional journey.