Friday, April 25, 2014

Stunning concerto CD made months before lockout shows symbiosis of Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra

Some maestro-prone tactical errors notwithstanding, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra fully deserve to be restored to each other after an unprecedented interruption of a great symphonic ensemble's history by those entrusted with its operation.

There will be ample support of this viewpoint from those lucky enough to enjoy the orchestra at home and on tour with Vanska on the podium. The rest of us must be content to nod in agreement on the evidence of broadcasts and recordings. A new release of the top two C-minor piano concertos in the classical tradition, with soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, offers impressive confirmation.

Two C-minor piano concertos display Vanska/Minnesota aplomb.
Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Mozart's No. 24 (K. 491) were recorded in 2011 and 2012, the last sessions coming within a few months of the near-disastrous lockout. The release, on the Swedish BIS label, is available on the orchestra's website.

Beethoven was an explicit admirer of Mozart's work in this significant minor key (also that of Beethoven's most famous symphony, with its iconically radiant finale in C major). Having both works together on this disc so well performed tempts one to comparisons that may seem oddly in Beethoven's disfavor.

I have no wish to indulge in revisionism, and little patience with ranking masterpieces or composers. But hearing these concertos in succession brings to mind something Aaron Copland once wrote in a discussion of Gustav Mahler: "The difference between listening to Beethoven and listening to Mahler is the difference between watching a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor act the part of a great man walking down the street."

Beethoven's op. 37 is headed by the same first-movement indication as its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony — Allegro con brio. But in most performances, the piano concerto unfolds in a stately, self-regarding fashion, with a majesty that borders on the staid. The long orchestral tutti evokes Copland's great actor mimicking a great man's pace down the street.

In this recording, Vanska and his orchestra take some of the starch out of the movement. Moreover, it's immediately evident that the Finnish conductor has worked to get explicit adherence to the variety in the score's articulation and phrasing from his orchestra. The result sets the performance on a path toward establishing the work's authentic greatness, not some imitation of greatness. By the time Sudbin enters, his variegated interpretation — powerful and never fussy — works hand-in-glove with the orchestra.

The first-movement cadenza sums up the meaning of everything we've heard so far, and everything we get from both pianist and orchestra is vivid and superbly balanced. Sudbin's handling of Beethoven's brief second-movement cadenza is perfectly proportioned, living up to the composer's direction to play sempre con gran espressione (always with great expression).

The finale establishes the work's greatness beyond any suspicion of great acting. Its harmonic boldness and ceaseless energy reach a high plane well before the Presto coda, with its sonorous kettledrum punctuation, sweeps the listener toward the final double bar.

The Mozart performance is even better: The great man is unmistakably present from the start. The orchestra's opening tutti boasts precise phrasing and articulation and woodwind playing that's full of character. Sudbin is first-rate here, too. In the second movement, he ornaments the melodic line tastefully when it repeats, echoing Mozart's subtle rhythmic changes in the theme's first phrase.

In the finale, the pianist's touch is emphatic but not overaccented; the momentum is infectious and seems to suggest endless reserves of energy — sort of the way Glenn Gould might have played Mozart if he had liked Mozart.

Lest it seem I'm praising these interpretations for their literalism, one departure from the score is an immense treat. In the third movement, after the surprising variation in C major, the return to C minor is taken slightly faster than everything that's preceded it. That makes for a wonderful set-up to the cadenza (Sudbin's own, as is the first movement's, both very exciting and true to the material).

It's an inspired interpretive choice, typical of the freshness to be encountered in both these performances. The disc will take a conspicuous place among "welcome back" tributes to the rapport the returned music director has with the orchestra he guided to greatness. And it doesn't seem to be a matter of merely great acting.