Perhaps the final signal that the Minnesota Orchestra has risen successfully — and with considerable panache — from the lockout is that it will begin recording again this weekend.
This is no small project. These will be the final installments in the orchestra’s cycle of Sibelius symphonies, with Osmo Vänskä at the podium, on the BIS label. The first CD in the series earned a Grammy nomination, and the second, comprised of the First and Fourth symphonies, won the 2013 award for Best Orchestral Performance.
It is likely that these performances will live on as evidence of a great orchestra playing at its peak under the guidance of a conductor with deep insight into this repertoire.
Following tradition, the three works to be recorded will be performed in concerts this week and next: Symphony No. 3 followed by Nos. 6 and 7.
Vänskä has set a high standard in these works. And, as the Thursday morning performance of the Third Symphony at Orchestra Hall suggested, his thoughts on these enigmatic symphonies seem, rather than growing stale with familiarity, to have deepened — or perhaps simply to have changed. Added to his trademark intensity and fidelity to the details of the score was a greater insistence in the outer movements on propulsion and momentum. Despite the almost constant undulations of tempo, the music, especially in the finale, felt like the product of one long breath.
This is Sibelius’ most intimate symphony. Some call it his “Pastoral,” and if so, it is a portrait of snowy landscapes rather than fields of corn. Though the music is lighthearted, Vänskä managed to underline the current of melancholy that is here, too. The orchestra played brilliantly. There were many highlights, the rich sound of the cellos, for instance, in the hymn-like tune in the second movement.
Carl Nielsen’s beguiling — and seldom heard — tone poem “Pan and Syrinx,” served as the curtain-raiser. The second half was devoted to Brahms’ burly Piano Concerto No. 2 with André Watts as soloist. Once or twice in recent years, Watts has given indifferent performances here, but not this time.
This concerto has been Watts’ specialty since he recorded it at age 22 with Leonard Bernstein in 1968. His performance Thursday had much the same power and soulfulness of that revered recording. The interpretation, however, was mellower, with a wider range of colors. At 68, Watts seems to have more fluent technique than ever. He played those mysterious double octaves in the second movement softer and faster than seemed possible, and in a concerto that invites pounding at the keyboard, he never pounded. The capacity audience cheered lustily.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.