Osmo Vänskä’s much-admired explorations of the music of his countryman Jean Sibelius have taken him to obscure corners of that composer’s output: his choral music, his theater scores, his lesser-known tone poems.
However, a more popular Sibelius work, the Violin Concerto — it is the most often-recorded concerto written in the 20th century — has played an ongoing role in Vänskä’s career.
During his years at the helm of the Lahti Symphony, Vänskä recorded both versions of the work — the early one and the final version of 1905 — with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist. And in 2000, when Vänskä made his first appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Violin Concerto was the program’s centerpiece. Joshua Bell was the soloist in what was a luminous performance.
Vänskä and the orchestra will present an all-Sibelius program at Carnegie Hall March 3 and, again, the Violin Concerto will take up the center spot, this time with Hilary Hahn as the soloist. The program is being previewed at Orchestra Hall this week.
Hahn, who last performed with this orchestra in 1998, gave the kind of performance Thursday morning that many have come to expect from her: refined, elegant, with great textural variety and technical command, and always utterly devoid of sentimentality.
Her especially soft phrasing of the ethereal opening passage created a magical, otherworldly aura. The precarious high leaps in the first-movement cadenza were attacked with amazing perfection, and the mercurial third movement, once described as a “polonaise for polar bears,” had a dancing elegance.
What was lacking was a certain amount of weight, a harder attack, at points such as the high-lying double-stop iterations of the first movement’s second theme. The playing here, rather than delicacy, needed a more forceful digging into the strings.
For his part, in what is a demanding role for the conductor, Vänskä served as Hahn’s able and supportive collaborator, clarifying the intricate cross-rhythms in the orchestral writing and the sometimes murky scoring, and drawing superb playing from the woodwinds. Happily, the brief but important bassoon solo that comes right after the violin cadenza in the first movement — a passage that can’t be heard even on most recordings — came across with perfect clarity Thursday morning.
Bracketing the concerto were two symphonies of Sibelius: No. 1 and No. 3. By now it’s no secret: Vänskä is a master at this repertoire. His mix of dramatic punch and relentless fidelity to the score continues to enliven this music and to draw remarkable performances from this orchestra.
And still there were surprises Thursday morning: the amazingly fast pace of the Scherzo of the Symphony No. 1, for instance, with musicians (and audience) holding on for dear life, and, after a brief pause — an intake of breath — diving right into the majestic calm of the finale.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.