Early Shostakovich Outshines Sibelius from Vänskä

United StatesUnited States Sibelius and Shostakovich: Baiba Skride (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Osmo Vänska (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 27.10.2017. (HS)

Sibelius Finlandia; Violin Concerto in D minor

Shostakovich — Symphony No.1 in F minor

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, usually a Sibelius master, hit some speed bumps in leading the San Francisco Symphony Friday night at Davies Symphony Hall. Along with a couple of familiar works by the Finnish composer, Vänskä conjured up a vivid, thrilling Symphony No. 1 by Shostakovich, for the second of three subscription concerts, promoted as “A Finnish Tableau.”

Favoring lightning-fast tempos in Finlandia, Vänskä drove the orchestra like a hopped-up sports car over the rolling landscape, barely easing off the accelerator for the lovely tune that finally arrives in the last few pages. At such a rapid pace, a muddiness of execution marred the clear texture of the strings the piece wants. Disconcerting differences of opinion, of precisely when the brass interjections should occur, created more uneasiness. And in the final chorale, the fast pulse minimized the grandeur.

A similarly fast pace led to corresponding problems in the finale of the Violin Concerto, mainly an unwelcome denseness in the full-orchestra sections. The soloist, the redoubtable Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, drew her best playing in the lower register of her Yfrah Neaman Stradivarius. Slower, more lyrical sections came out lovely, even sensuous, but Skride’s more rhythmic moments missed a necessary edge of keen articulation.

There should have been more magic in the opening pages. All the details were right. Skride’s entrance emerged out of a cloud in the barely audible opening chord as Vänskä evoked a wispy texture, but again the pace was just fast enough to dampen the response when the opening movement finally set its main themes into motion. Her playing meticulously followed the score, and she created some wonderful moments along the way, only to lose focus again on the next page.

Best was the slow movement, which struck a perfect balance between Scandinavian matter-of-fact-ness and lyric warmth, the tempo moving like a wide, deep stream. Likewise, the finale occasionally snapped into place, but then a lack of unanimity crept in to threaten derailment.

In the first half, elements that resisted falling into place clicked impressively in the second half, devoted to Shostakovich’s youthful score. Precision that eluded the orchestra made itself felt from the first phrases. The composer’s first symphony has been derided by some as an example of a precocious conservatory student trying out ideas he cadged from Mahler or Stravinsky. But Vänskä shaped every phrase to coincide with the Shostakovich we know, including the sardonic asides, the pungent dissonances, the obsessive rhythms, and colorful orchestral timbres.

Momentum built up through the second-movement Scherzo, as Vänskä tossed off the quick changes with élan, and Robin Sutherland ripped through the breakneck pace of the piano commentary. The slow movement achieved a sense of majesty, despite pungent asides and the long snare-drum crescendo. But the finale nailed everything down – a delicious panoply of rhythmic jauntiness and brass perorations — and finally a marvelous timpani cadenza executed by Ed Stephan before the finish, a burst of well-focused energy.

Harvey Steiman

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