Luminous Sibelius, Dark Sallinen and Dramatic Grieg

United StatesUnited States  Sallinen, Grieg, Sibelius: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 8.5.2014

Sallinen:Symphony No. 1
Grieg:Piano Concerto in A minor
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major


One of the most accomplished groups on the planet, the Cleveland Orchestra responds to a conductor who knows what he wants and how to get it, and tonight’s concert, led by guest conductor, Osmo Vänskä was quite fine.

Vänskä drew forth many details from Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, connecting all the fragments into a tapestry full of life. From the evocative opening through the rising energy of the scherzo and into the grandeur of the finale, Vänskä made sure that the work came across not just as an attractive musical landscape painting but as an unstoppable arc of rising tension, generating tremendous energy in the closing pages. Particularly impressive was the dynamic range Vänskä used, dropping back to near inaudibility for one frantic passage in the violins, then building to a full roar near the end of the piece. The orchestra followed Vänskä’s detailed directions precisely, sculpting phrases and sinking and swelling chords to give a constant sense of movement and change. The lower strings were particularly effective, resounding the composer’s sweet but dense bass harmonies while allowing Vänskä to sculpt their dynamics, keeping all the textures luminously clear.

Just as sweet, though characteristically darker, was the Symphony No. 1 of Sibelius’ younger countryman Aulis Sallinen. Having heard Sallinen’s music only through recordings, I was pleased to hear it in concert where the composer’s dark scoring can’t be assisted by clever engineering. It proved that Sallinen is a sure-handed master of the orchestra, making the music speak despite the dark, thick ranges he tends to favor. Symphony No. 1 is a characteristic Sallinen piece dating from the early 1970s, and it finds the sense of wonder that keeps the composer’s cinematic soundscapes from ever sounding bleak or oppressive. Vänskä and the orchestra brought it to life in what was apparently the work’s Cleveland premiere.

The featured soloist on the program was Garrick Ohlsson, a master of the entire dynamic and textural range of the piano, and he brought that breadth to bear in a deeply satisfying performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Ohlsson declined to swoon or exaggerate, simply playing the familiar showpiece with straightforward integrity and commitment. There were no phrase pointings, no lingering over favorite moments, no hyping of the work’s already considerable drama. Such tricks weren’t needed in any case as the orchestra and conductor evocatively backed the pianist. The performance wasn’t without overall dramatic arc as Ohlsson slightly understated the first movement (except for an enthralling cadenza) in order to put more involvement into the slow interlude and stomping finale.

With recent concerts led by Herbert Blomstedt, David Robertson, and now Osmo Vänskä, the Cleveland Orchestra has been on a roll. Remaining season events this month include an opera-in-concert (with a newly commissioned animated film) of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and a series with the young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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