Vänskä’s Dramatic, Naturally Paced Rachmaninov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Dvořák, Rachmaninov: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London. 2.11.2012 (CD)

Nielsen: Pan and Syrinx (Pastoral Scene for Orchestra), Op.49
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

Pan and Syrinx (1918) is a work from Nielsen’s prime, written shortly after the Fourth Symphony. It tells the story of the amorous pursuit by Pan of the nymph Syrinx. Unable to escape, Syrinx turns to the river nymphs for help and is transformed into reeds that are subsequently fashioned by Pan into the prototypical Pan pipes

In its impressionistic description of a the story and use of a solo flute to describe the nymph Syrinx, the work has much in common with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The sound world created by Vänskä, though, was that of the still, cold North, a world away from Debussy’s faune and with no hint of languor or sensuousness. The performance achieved a remarkable stillness and repose although this occasionally came at the expense of making the music sound episodic. The solos were beautifully played throughout – the opening cello solo from guest principal Josephine Knight was particularly notable – although the woodwinds were less strongly projected than might seem appropriate, given their role in the story.

Christian Tetzlaff in the Dvořák was all restless energy: the opening solo bars were played with striking vigour and the muscular energy was sustained through the remainder of the first movement. Tetzlaff’s physical movements matched the energetic nature of the interpretation; one moment he was crouching and the next on tip-toe to match the soaring melodic line. Although initially engaging, the approach soon came to feel relentless, and meant that much of the reflective inwardness of the music in this movement was missed. The segue adagio ma non troppo brought a nicely contrasting calmness as the soloist finally allowed himself to relax into the music. The final movement saw a resumption of his approach to the first and, whilst undoubtedly exciting, lost much of the playfulness of Dvořák’s rhythms.

Tetzlaff was playing a modern instrument by Peter Greiner. His tone was both finely projected and sweet in the upper registers, whilst sometimes losing focus on the lower strings. Vänskä and the LPO provided supple, sensitive support throughout.

The encore, the Gavotte en rondeau of the Bach E major Partita BWV 1006, was all of a piece with the concerto, fresh and striking but at the expense of some of the beauty of Bach’s writing.

Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony was written in 1935 and 1936, mostly at the composer’s villa near Lake Lucerne, and is often seen as expressing the loss that he felt at his continuing isolation from his homeland after the 1917 Revolution. Vänskä and the LPO have tackled the piece before in a fine 2007 performance that was recorded and is available on the LPO’s own label (LPO-0036).

This evening’s performance was characterized by fine handling of the ebb and flow of the music and by tempo transitions that always felt entirely natural and unforced. Vänskä maintained local interest whilst ensuring that the music maintained a strong sense of momentum.

The Lento opening of the first movement carried on solo clarinet, cello and horn was nicely spectral if a little tentative – and marred by persistent loud coughing from one member of the audience. The second movement’s opening solo horn and accompanying harp were beautifully and delicately played, whilst the violin solo from leader Peter Shoemann seemed a little plain by comparison. The rhythms of the movement’s scherzo-like section were incisive and nicely sprung.

The finale was dramatic without being brash. The central fugal section had effective weight and emphasis whilst maintaining the sense of forward movement. Only in the final bars did one feel an element of artifice as the movement transitioned into the coda and the pace quickened towards the conclusion.

The LPO strings were on fine form throughout with a bright, warm but never cloying tone, well suited to Rachmaninov’s yearning melodies. The whole performance was nicely balanced and tuttis were transparent and never strident, with strong expressive solo playing from wind and brass (including a notable number of guest principals).

A fine achievement again from Vänskä and the LPO: a natural, flowing and dramatic performance of the Rachmaninov that gathered enthusiastic applause from an appreciative Festival Hall audience.

Carl Dowthwaite