Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein Collaborate with the Sydney Symphony — Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Beethoven

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Osmo Vänskä. Photo by Greg Helgeson.

Osmo Vänskä. Photo by Greg Helgeson.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 10 December 2011

Tchaikovsky – Voyevoda – Symphonic Ballad, opus 78
Prokofiev – Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra, opus 125
Beethoven – Symphony no. 3 in E flat, opus 55

Osmo Vänskä – conductor
Alisa Weilerstein – cello
Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting.  The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.

Knowing Beethoven, to begin a symphony with a short loud pulse and then such a simple E♭ major melody in the cellos and basses, almost Mozartian in quality, one expects a shocking twist to come at the end, so when that melody slips to D and then C♯, a note utterly foreign to the opening key, it is not so shocking coming from Beethoven. Though the audience at the première in 1804 didn’t have our ‘advantage’ of having heard the six later symphonies, then again he had just written the opus 27 piano sonatas including the C♯ minor Quasi una fantasia and the opus 31 sonatas including the D major Tempest and no doubt had ideas in his head for the Appassionata which he finished in 1804 or 5. Indeed Osmo Vänskä made this twist, and the ensuing development, continuing across the four movements, seem very natural at a human level, as if created for us by something beyond the grasp of a human hand. His articulation of each phrase, fascinating to listen to in itself, complemented his articulation of the overarching development in each movement, and the piece as a whole. This articulation was vocal and human and he took such care to shape each note. His seemingly effortless attention to detail let no note go by without some understanding of its role in the whole and in his interpretation. The piece was not exactly gently played, but these cares combined to create music that was so warm and human, so unforced, so consoling, especially in the return to that opening theme at the end of the first movement, and so attractive even in its dissonance, to be extremely absorbing. It had all the curiosity, fascination and clarity of a tidal pool. Vänskä is the sort of conductor one could listen to all day without fatigue or monotony. The symphony had a quality of intimacy some Beethoven performances lack, like that of very fine chamber music. He took advantage of the Sydney Symphony’s strengths, indeed they seemed to be on his page to begin with, and the musicians individually and as an ensemble sounded the best I’ve heard them this year.

The Marcia Funebre of the second movement is not really a march at all, so far removed is the symphony from any of its ceremonial ancestors and Vänskä seemed to agree, shaping the notes more smoothly, less abruptly in time, so each seemed to rise from nowhere and then sink back in, speaking to the very thoughtful bowing technique of the strings, the basses especially, as the sound was rich but clear and unmuddied. In this way, the heart-rending melody, which has become so familiar, seemed fresh, it did not sound thrust forward, rather the throbbing rhythm was allowed to pulse underneath the music, allowing the texture of the strings, their accenting and phrasing, subtler dimensions of the music to rise to the surface. By contrast, the Scherzo was played with such joie de vivre that it made me smile, yet in the moving and human interpretation, it all was of a piece.

The texture of the music was finely detailed throughout, the tutti fortes had clarity in the woodwinds where sometimes they can do little more than try to shout over the strings and horns or wash out into a you’d-miss-them-if-they-weren’t-there role. The pianistic staccato repeated pulses of notes which Beethoven often uses, had detail in them too and, like the quality of mercy, were not strained.

It’s forgivable, alongside the large and varied orchestras of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to find the sound of Beethoven thinner or more slight, but this is wrong. The ear maybe needs a moment to become accustomed to the new sound-space, but to think of the large, diversely populated orchestra as more sophisticated or advanced is not right. Beethoven is one of the composers humanity has produced whose ideas and creations seem to have come to him from nowhere, who wrote these down and played them for others and himself as closely as he could to the original idea, rather than starting with a blank staff, a piano keyboard and a masterpiece of Bach or Mozart and starting from there. Beethoven’s orchestra, for the Third, says things Tchaikovsky’s, Prokofiev’s or Mahler’s could not; his range of possibilities is just as large, as infinite, even if the range of sounds is smaller.

Tchaikovsky might even agree. When reading the writings of a composer, especially programs for symphonic pieces, but also letters, one does not have to believe everything at face value. Excellent writing does not necessarily go hand in hand with excellent composing and in Tchaikovsky’s case, who is famous for his self-critical and self-deprecating writings, his self perceptions were not necessarily accurate, though coming from himself they naturally seem to carry more weight than coming from an outside critic. Some critics have begun books by quoting one of Tchaikovsky’s self-denigrations then going on to find or point out examples in his music to back it up, but the music must come first, must be allowed to speak on its own terms for itself, unencumbered by letters  (unless they’re keys or notes in the anglophonic context), and if there are flaws, they exist independently of anything the composer wrote about them later, making these self-criticisms more or less irrelevant.

Voyevoda is a very late (1891) symphonic piece, sharing the same name as the composer’s early opera, but is not related to it in its conception, rather the music refers to a ballad of the same name by Mickiewicz. It is a fascinating piece, in no way small, rather it seems longer than its physical dimension by virtue of its dense rhythmic and thematic material, its orchestration and the absorbing and unexpected ways it develops. The genre of the short symphonic work is a strange phenomenon of the romantic age: ‘overtures’ existing on their own without operas, ‘symphonic poems’, ‘ballads’, etc. They seem to speak a language related to the full symphony’s, but finish saying their peace much sooner. It is more that they do not experience time in the same way as the symphony than that they are short or small, rather they are folded, convoluted, larger on the inside than the outside like Dr. Who’s TARDIS. The symphony needs a certain length of time, a certain extent, while the symphonic poem always seems on the verge of collapsing into a singularity.

So is Voyevoda, at least in this performance. Rhythmically varied themes are played on top of each other, often syncopated by accent. Many in the orchestra stand out slightly as sorts of soloists, with deeply felt playing from Lawrence Dobell on clarinet interweaving also with Diana Doherty’s oboe. Very dark atmospheric cellos and basses contrast with Russian folk melody, but played with such honesty from within, the sounds avoided cliché and carried the detail Tchaikovsky meant them to have. Like Nutcracker written around the same time, Tchaikovsky uses a celesta in his orchestra but in a completely different way. We hear Tchaikovsky the ultra-curious experimenter, but here it is not extreme instrumentation for novelty but rather a marginal tweaking of orchestral color, a slight deepening of the sound and texture. The celesta hardly ever plays alone and hardly ever stands out in the usual obvious, bright manner, instead it often parallels the harp or adds a rounded resonance to the ensemble color. Guest musician Susanne Powell took great care in her playing and had a very fine ear for that ensemble color and for the possibilities of blending combinations with specific instruments. The cylindrical side-drum in addition to the timpani also came in in a subtle way lending a hollowness to the brass’ sound. The SSO trombones have been on a roll lately, here really coming into their own around the climax near the end, calling out the three of them with a definite brazen sound, but tempered with the usual preternatural trombone timbre, plus something of an extra nuance in the way they played off each other and in their care over their tone quality.

Osmo Vänskä seems to inspire a bit of extra care over individuals’ part in the whole, both the vertical and the horizontal whole. He, as in the other pieces in the concert, brought out extraordinary detail and clarity in the music as if no element were uninteresting, with extremely detailed and finely shaded phrasing to give vivid presence to the music without resorting to bombastic crescendos. In fact, though his dynamic range was very wide, his music seemed generally softer than most performances, and this suited the music and the characteristic acoustic of the hall. He used the backward traveling vibrations to help shape his music without treading on the orchestra’s clarity.

Alisa Weilerstein. Photo by Jamie Jung.

Alisa Weilerstein. Photo by Jamie Jung.

Vänskä showed he was as able a conductor of Prokofiev as Beethoven, for whom he seems to be better known, in fact, interestingly enough, there were similarities in his approach to these composer’s large works. Sometimes its hard to know with Prokofiev what you’re dealing with, sometimes romantic, even sentimental sounding in some performances, sometimes very prickly and abrupt, seemingly eccentric for its own sake. Stories of his sufferings under Stalin cast a deep shadow and make one wonder whether an artistic decision here or there weren’t glozed from political exigencies. Vänskä, and Alisa Weilerstein, seemed understand the history and to leave all this behind and transcend it by finding and bringing out a deep humanism in the music.

Alisa Weilerstein played with extraordinary maturity and depth of understanding in this enormous and exhausting piece. She has a great range of finely shaded timbres all of which she teases out with a grace which suits the beauty of the cello. She is certainly an amazing virtuoso, but what was more amazing was her interpretation of the music, not letting a phrase by without sharing her understanding of it, as if playing a solo piece in recital, even in a fast chromatic run, and how she seemed to leave the virtuosity of performance in the background to allow the music more room. Her phrasing and accenting, which is necessarily very complicated as Prokofiev has set out the music and not always clear as to meaning or “expression,” made perfect sense on hearing it, and still managed to have a warm, vocal manner. Her style and spirit and Osmo Vänskä’s and the SSO’s too, seems to be very compatibly matched and this gave the music an intimacy, very moving in its depth of understanding and in its enveloping presence. She had a marvelous rapport with individual musicians who came out at various times, even the side drum she seemed to embrace in accompanying, weaving into its low pulsations.

Prokofiev, more willing to slip out from harmonic pickles in an odd and direct way than Beethoven for whom the process is more involved, in this music at times so expresses a very human kind of doubt, and the more “prickly” passages went hand in hand with this, giving way at times to brighter and more strident certainty, which still did not have the last word. Vänskä and Weilerstein’s interpretation confirmed for me Prokofiev’s seriousness as a composer even to the point of making me wonder who else could have written a score for Romeo and Juliet in the 20th Century. Maybe Benjamin Britten, though, like this Prokofiev piece, Weilerstein’s interpretation of Britten cello suites would be something to hear, the point being these very human pieces of music have the capacity to be experienced like a great friend, to be sensed, felt and thought about, to be quarreled with and to be missed.

By the time of the interval — after an extremely touching encore from the Bach suites which, as Weilerstein played it, seemed written for that large symphonic hall in its play against the acoustics — a (near) full moon had just risen, casting a moonglade across the Harbour to the feet of the Opera House’s sails, ferries lit with fairy lights gently rippling it like a web of silver ribbons with their wakes, in a wonderful case of attuned architectural and astronomical cooperation with the musical experience. Why more tourists don’t go to hear the Symphony for their Sydney Opera House visits I don’t understand.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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