The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Eroica program appears to have been built around the strengths of celebrated Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska, who recently recorded a critically acclaimed Beethoven cycle of symphonies. The first half of the program comprised two works by Finnish composers and the second half Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, Eroica.
An Australian premiere of a work by an important contemporary composer is always welcome and Kalevia Aho’s single movement Minea could not have been in better hands than Vanska’s. Intended as a twenty-minute orchestral showpiece, it was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra at the suggestion of Osmo Vanska. It is a complex piece, full of rhythmic and dynamic change. Beginning with a theme coloured by Indian raga, Arabian influences are also heard as individual players contribute to what builds up to some tremendous climaxes.
An initial brassy fanfare led to unexpected combinations of instruments, which created a succession of fascinating timbres. Weighty warlike utterances were interspersed with skirls of interweaving melodic lines from the wind players, evoking the sound of wailing shawms. Swirling flutes and high-pitched brass were followed by snatches of Rite of Spring-type music (that surely must have been an intentional allusion), adding to the primal feel.
As the music became more chaotic with cross-rhythms galore and some exciting snatches of solo violin playing from Concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, it seemed that everything could descend into complete chaos in less expert hands. As it was, the strong over-riding rhythmic drive and Vanska’s ability to feature discrete groups of voices made for a coherent musical experience. By the end, members of the audience were quite literally vibrating with the sheer power of the orchestral sound. This was in no small part due to the contribution of the drums of various descriptions, lower strings, contrabassoon and tuba. There must be few orchestral pieces where the tuba plays such a central role, in this case, skillfully performed by Timothy Buzbee. An enthusiastic audience showed its unequivocal approval of this new piece. It is likely that the MSO’s interstate counterparts will be anxious to add such an impressive virtuoso orchestral piece to their respective repertoires before long.
Similar drive and attention to detail was apparent in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. After the softest murmuring pianissimo from the violins Frank Peter Zimmermann entered with a haunting thread of sound that developed in intensity with forthright, expressive playing. This was answered by waves of energy generated by the lower strings and winds. The first movement was full of drama and carefully shaped forward momentum on the part of soloist and orchestra alike. Despite a momentary mishap in the Adagio, Zimmermann met the many virtuosic demands presented by the piece with apparent ease. His technical assurance resulted in great clarity and precision, with the breakneck speed of the finale allowing for a dazzling display of pyrotechnics. As an encore, Zimmermann responded to an appreciative audience by playing the Prelude of Bach’s Partita No 3 with a well-projected tone and clean attack.
Using a larger body of strings than is nowadays often the case, Vanska commanded his forces in a manner that reflected much of Beethoven’s original intention of portraying Napoleon’s mind. His “determined, questing character” was very much in evidence in the opening Allegro con brio with deliberate, sweeping phrases and considerable grace. Again, Vanska ensured that suitable prominence and emphasis was given to various sections of the orchestra, while maintaining an appropriate blend within and between the parts.
The repeated slow, hushed funeral march of the second movement was interspersed with some exquisite oboe playing by Jeffrey Crellin, dance like passages, soaring climbing phrases from the violins and counter melodies that evoked grandeur. The whole effect was of concentrated intention right up to the final, dying strains. Fine oboe playing was also a feature of the lively Scherzo along with some effective work from the horns.
The Finale was full of colourful contrast with some lovely playing from the flute and wind band as well as some precise fugal passages from the strings. The triumphant ending of the symphony was more a reminder of Beethoven’s heroic achievements as a groundbreaking composer of genius than Napoleon’s aspirations, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the true nature of the conquest.
Heather Leviston reviewed the concert at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 27.
The picture is of conductor Osmo Vanska.