Putting on a festival — a marathon — of Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos, as the Minnesota Orchestra is doing this month, can’t be called a bold journey into the unknown.
To be sure, there must be some, both young and old, who haven’t heard these masterworks. Similarly, perhaps there are some who haven’t seen “Gone With the Wind” or “Citizen Kane,” and yet we don’t hear of film festivals offering repeated screenings, year after year, of these film classics. Surely it’s possible to diminish the effect of a masterpiece by experiencing it too often.
This isn’t to deny that the orchestra here and its energetic conductor, Osmo Vänskä, can lay a special claim to this repertoire. Their widely praised recordings of the symphonies on the BIS label, recorded over the past decade, blend certain insights from the early-music movement with a willingness to exploit the full resources of the modern orchestra. Add to this Vanska’s trademark close readings of the scores, and the result is the liveliest, most interesting Beethoven to make it onto disc in recent years.
Much the same could be said of the collaborations between the forces here and the 35-year-old Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. These were uncommonly sensitive recordings of three of the Beethoven concertos — Nos. 3, 4 and 5 — released in 2010 and 2013. The two remaining concertos were to have been recorded as well, but the project took a tumble during the orchestra lockout that began in 2012. According to official word, there are no plans to revive the series.
Wisely, the orchestra engaged Sudbin to play all five concertos here. He and Vänskä appear to have developed a strong rapport, and, as stylists, they share, among other things, a fascination with subtle touches in dynamics, a quality seldom found these days. The musicians of the orchestra, too, seem to admire this slim young Russian. Moreover, in the concert Friday night at Orchestra Hall, having Sudbin play the two concertos that he hasn’t recorded with Vänskä — Nos. 1 and 2 — was a nice touch. Here was repertoire we hadn’t heard from these musicians.
The concert offered music-making of a singularly high level. Everyone — orchestra, conductor, soloist — was playing at some kind of peak.
Sudbin’s playing in the Concerto No. 1 was sparkling, alive and natural — nimble and witty in the outer movements while superbly inward and reflective in the slow movement, where the notes, so delicately struck, sounded as if they had little sonic halos around them. Sudbin proved once again to be a master of those nearly imperceptible tempo and dynamic adjustments that give life to music. The first movement cadenza, probably the pianist’s own, brought Liszt to mind. For the Concerto No. 2, he used Beethoven’s own cadenza, giving it an appropriately freewheeling, improvisatory air. And here the offbeat accents of the rondo movement were delivered with the breezy drollery of an expert stand-up comedian.
For the second half ,Vänskä led the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The special softness the conductor enforced on the opening pages of the slow movement only increased the music’s pensive melancholy, while the Dionysian finale, played about as fast as is humanly possible, was a wild and rollicking ride.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.