Sure-Handed Sibelius, Cat-Like Rachmaninoff

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky: Daniil Trifonov (piano), Osmo Vänskä (conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 30.1.2014 (HS)

Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6

Leave it to Osmo Vänskä—Finnish-born, educated in conducting at the SibeliusAcademy—to bring welcome and refreshing insights to two moody Sibelius works. The Symphony No. 6, for example, is probably the least heard of the composer’s seven symphonies, and Night Ride and Sunrise is a reminder of how rich and absorbing a tone poet the composer of Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela can be.

Perhaps energized by news in recent weeks of a Grammy award and a settlement in the long and contentious lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra (which had been his home ensemble, and by some reports might well be again), Vänskä drew responsive and tone-colorful playing from the San Francisco Symphony in the first of four guest performances Thursday afternoon.

Unquestionably the highlight was the Sixth Symphony, which brought a disparate program to a satisfying close. Like most of the composer’s later symphonies, this one relies not so much on classical form as on an exploration of orchestral sonorities and pulsing rhythms to hold everything together. Harmonic progressions get a gentle tilt from being in the Dorian mode (basically following the white keys on the piano starting and ending with D), so the resolutions seem to adopt a questioning angle. Sibelius uses more polyphonic writing rather than relying on harmonized melody. Tempos generally move along quickly, and Vänsä never let them flag.

 It takes a conductor who understands how these musical sounds develop organically, irrespective of expectations, to make it all feel totally natural. Vänskä made the curtains of sound, gauzy at first, flap with more vitality in the surprisingly lively middle movements, and reach a velvety richness in the short but emphatic chorale that closes the piece. Those are what propel the narrative, and the results were brilliant.

 Night Ride and Sunrise bookended the program with more of Sibelius’ color-painting in sound. The opening 6/8 gallop darted in and out of shade and light as the various instruments chipped in their bits of the melodic thread. The long and patient transition from the harrowing ride to the Nordic sunrise was marvelous to behold, pillars of sound that brought a sort of icy brightness to the music. Executed with lovely delicacy by the brass and woodwinds, it eventually developed into a sonorous climax that echoed satisfyingly in the low brass.

 The brass and woodwinds opened the second half without their string and percussion colleagues for a crisply played and evocative romp through Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, tossing thematic elements back and forth like a chamber ensemble rather than a brass band.

Vänskä reined in the orchestra beautifully to match with soloist Daniil Trifonovs deft approach to that old warhorse, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Often this serves as a vehicle for bombast from the orchestra and flashiness from the soloist, but Trifanov and Vänskä had more refined ideas. Trifonov parried the orchestra’s vigorous, brassy opening thrust with fleet, precise and delicate splashes of the opening theme. With each succeeding variation, he found more colors, pouncing on the music like a cat chasing particularly skittery mice, rather than, as we often hear, a tiger stalking its prey.

 The result was playing of remarkable grace and wit, especially in the dreamy “big tune” that appears in Variation 18 (of 24). Trifonov unfurled this music with utter simplicity, breathing life into it by hinting at, but not quite detouring into, rubato. If his playing in louder passages occasionally relied on too much pedal, it was a small price to pay for those magical moments.

Harvey Steiman