Osmo Vänskä Leads Persuasive Performances of Rarities by Dvořák and Sibelius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Sibelius:  Stephen Hough (piano), Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Simon Callow (narrator), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.2.2016. (RB)

Dvořák:  Piano Concerto in G Minor Op 33
Sibelius:  Excerpts from incidental music to The Tempest Op 109

This concert formed part of the Shakespeare400 festival which is a UK-wide series of concerts, talks and exploratory events celebrating the Bard’s musical legacy in the year which marks the 400th anniversary of his death.  It featured two flawed masterpieces which have never enjoyed wide popularity with the general public or been incorporated into the mainstream repertoire.

Dvořák’s Piano Concerto was written in 1876 and it is the first of the composer’s three concertos.  It has never enjoyed the same popularity as the violin or cello concertos and part of the reason for this is that much of the piano writing is awkward and ungainly and pianists have not been attracted to the work.  Wilém Kurz produced a revised edition for soloists which was played by early champions of the work such as Rudolph Firkušný.  Sviatoslav Richter was having none of that and led the way in returning to the composer’s original score, producing a landmark recording with Carlos Kleiber in 1977 (review).  Richter was not entirely happy with the recording as he felt it was too sophisticated – a point which tonight’s soloist Stephen Hough makes in his interview with Geoffrey Newman on this website.  However, many great pianists are dissatisfied with their recordings for various reasons so I am afraid I do not share Hough’s view of the Richter recording.  Notwithstanding the structural weaknesses in the concerto it is a very attractive piece – the melodies are stronger than those in the Violin Concerto and it has a distinctive charm all of its own.

There was much to admire in this performance by Hough and Vänskä and they certainly made a compelling case for the work.  Hough followed Richter’s lead in playing the composer’s original score and he made light work of the difficulties in the piano part.  He brought a breadth and warmth to the opening theme and he allowed the music to blossom and the innate lyricism to shine through.  Vänskä and the LPO proved to be attentive partners and they brought out the distinctive rustic charm and dancing quality of the music.  In the development section Vänskä injected energy and turbulence into the music while Hough’s playing of the chords and octaves was powerful and dramatic.  Hough has an amazing technique which he put to good use in this performance but occasionally he can seem a little detached when playing virtuoso passage-work as if he is going through the motions.  I noticed this on a few occasions in the first movement particularly in the cadenza when he seemed a little disengaged from this music.

In the Andante sostenuto the LPO’s horns and woodwind set the scene beautifully by evoking the composer’s much-loved Bohemian woodlands.  Hough’s playing was a model of clarity and rapt poetic eloquence and there was some highly engaging dialogue between soloist and orchestra, creating a wonderful sense of a chamber music intimacy.  Hough’s filigree playing towards the end of the movement was exquisitely executed.  In the finale we are in the world of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and Hough captured the distinctive Czech flavour of Dvořák’s spirited dances while the shifts in mood and tempo were beautifully handled by both soloist and orchestra.  Some of Hough’s finger-work was dazzling while the coda was a bravura piece of playing which deservedly brought the house down.

The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play and Prospero’s final speech is often seen as the Bard’s farewell to his audience.  Fittingly, Sibelius’ incidental music for the play was the final work he wrote before the long creative block of his final years.  Sibelius compiled two suites from the full score and these were championed by Beecham and others.  The complete instrumental music was not recorded until 1992 under the baton of tonight’s conductor Osmo Vänskä.  In this concert we heard a selection of extracts from the full score which Simon Callow’s narration linked together by providing a dramatic backdrop to the action.

of the greatest living interpreters of Sibelius and he presented this wonderful collection of songs, dances, portraits and tone poems with enormous flair.  The shamanistic Prospero, the monstrous Caliban, the enchanting Miranda and the plaintive Alonso were all brought vividly to life.  The LPO’s strings and brass gave us a primordial, psychologically engulfing opening storm while the ‘Dance of the Shapes’ was full of bright vibrant colours.  Vänskä and the LPO moved seamlessly from Minuet to Polka to Polonaise all of them infused with Sibelius’ distinctive Finnish sensibility.  Mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi sang Ariel’s five songs with a gorgeous tonal lustre and I particularly enjoyed her performance of the last song although the balance with the orchestra was not quite right in the opening song.  Simon Callow proved a competent if slightly uninspiring narrator, guiding our way way through the unfolding dramatic events.

Overall, this was an evening of first class playing by all the performers and I hope their efforts will be rewarded by the two works on the programme being performed more widely and more often.

Robert Beattie 


Vänskä is one


Leave a Comment