The Minnesota Orchestra in Two Rarities, Flanking a Repertory Cornerstone

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Nielsen: Stephen Hough (piano), Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 27.10.2011 (BH)

Tchaikovsky: Overture to The Voyevoda, Op. 3 (1867-1868)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 23 (1874-1875)
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 27, “Sinfonia espansiva” (1910-1911)

Listeners could be forgiven for confusing Tchaikovsky’s Overture to The Voyevoda with another, much later Tchaikovsky work titled simply Voyevoda (Op. 78). (I don’t recall ever hearing tonight’s Carnegie Hall curtain-raiser, either live or on recording.) But in the hands of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, the Overture showed youthful spunk, with a theme that the composer repeats perhaps once, or twice, or ten times too often. In fairness, it’s an early piece, and if nothing else showed off the glow of the Minnesota horns – not to mention Vänskä’s ability to turn something pleasant into perhaps just a little bit more.

But the chestnut won the prize. “I’ve never hated it less!” joked my listening companion after hearing Stephen Hough deliver a masterfully conceived, magnetically played version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Scrupulously avoiding bland virtuosity, Hough found the poetry that makes the piece a perennial favorite; it’s not merely about the surfeit of blazing octaves (fun as they are), although he had no problem delivering them with heart-pounding energy. For his part, Vänskä and the ensemble took nothing for granted, whether in rich-toned climaxes or in the oh-so-quiet pizzicatos that occasionally sweep through the score. For a touching encore, Hough noted the 75th birthday of tenor Robert White (in the audience) and offered him a sublime birthday gift, a pensive, loving Grieg “Notturno” from his Lyric Pieces, Op. 54.

Nielsen’s Third Symphony, written in his mid-forties, finally cemented his reputation, with great success both in its premiere and in subsequent performances. The first movement combines stabbing opening chords, turbulent luminescence, and an unpredictable ebb and flow. Two singers, sparingly used, grace the second part, filled with spacious pastoral clouds of sound, and soprano Karin Wolverton and baritone Jeffrey Madison were understated yet effective in their wordless contributions. The third movement’s swirling opening leads to a fugal motif passed around the ensemble, before the finale – with its broad, rugged theme – opens up to even more impressive vistas. At this point in his career, Vänskä is one of the world’s premier Nielsen interpreters – comfortable with the composer’s idiosyncrasies, which make his symphonies so arresting and ultimately, so memorable – and he is lucky to have one of the greatest American orchestras right along with him.

Bruce Hodges