It was three years ago this month, and Osmo Vänskä was leading the Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the first time since his appointment as music director in the fall of 2003. His players tore into the electrifying "Death of Tybalt" from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet as if their lives depended on it. And they were smiling. And the orchestra and its director are still on their honeymoon.
Carnegie Hall audiences can see this for themselves February 13th and 14th when Vänskä and his Minnesotans perform the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies by Beethoven and Sibelius, with each program also including shorter works by the Finnish master. Vänskä's acclaimed recordings of his countryman's seven symphonies with Finland's Lahti Symphony on the BIS label established his international career, and his latest project for the label is the Beethoven symphonies with Minnesota, recorded in SACD surround sound. Halfway through the cycle, reviewers once again have been trotting out their highest praises.
Vänskä's tempos never dawdle, and Beethovenian brio suits him just fine. "If you start to work with Beethoven's metronome marks you will find that they are not so bad," the conductor says. "But I come ten percent down when I feel it's too fast, which works very well in most cases." He resisted a while when BIS approached him to record the cycle, but he finally agreed when friends and musicians insisted they heard fresh details in his performances. "I tried to concentrate very much on the middle voices, not only the bass and melody lines. The violas are doing fantastic things, and sometimes the second violins and second woodwinds, too. So there are some surprises."
The conductor perceives a strong kinship between the music of Beethoven and Sibelius. "The more I know about Beethoven, the more I know about Sibelius," Vänskä declares, "and I know that Sibelius admired Beethoven very, very much."
But aren't Sibelius's roots Russian, Tchaikovskian even, especially in the first symphonies and the Violin Concerto? "No, no, no, no, no, no, not at all!" says the maestro with a good-natured laugh. "If you want to play Sibelius's First Symphony in a sentimental way and do a lot of ritenutos and some glissandos with the violin tips, then it starts to be Slavic and sentimental in a very bad way in my opinion. But if you follow the metronome markings and play what the composer wrote, it changes the character totally."
None of Sibelius's symphonies takes on Beethoven's model of victory through struggle more than his mighty Fifth. Sibelius was pressed to complete it in time for his 50th-birthday celebration, in 1915. Following its premiere as a four-movement symphony, however, the composer withdrew it and did not arrive at the three-movement final version until 1919. It had been, he said, a "struggle with God."
To understand Sibelius, says Vänskä, we must understand "the national feelings about Finland. I would say that Sibelius's music has a kind of hope and, in a way, victory — maybe not a real victory, but a positive mark. But it always happens through tears. I am always crying when I listen to the end of the Fifth Symphony. There's a very strange point, about one and a half minutes before the end, when I just cannot help it."
Sibelius conducted the Fourth Symphony's world premiere in 1911, the same year of the premieres of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Ravel's L'Heure espagnole, Stravinsky's Pétrouchka, Elgar's Second Symphony, and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Most commentators consider Sibelius's Fourth his most profound symphony, but also his bleakest. The composer thought he was dying of throat cancer, and he ends the finale with eight evenly weighted A-minor chords. "It calls for much courage to look at life straight in the eyes," he wrote in his diary on April 2, the day before the premiere. Later he called the Fourth "a protest against present-day music. There is nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it."
"The Fourth Symphony has one of the most positive endings [of Sibelius's symphonies]," Vänskä says. "He is wrestling with death and illness. He doesn't want to please anyone; he's just writing honest music, without thinking of the audience. And when we come to the end, I think the composer has accepted that you have to take life as it comes. The door is a little bit open for optimism. Even though you might go through difficult times, you have to continue. There is peace of light, peace of hope."
Sedgwick Clark is editor of the Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts.