This year's Proms season has been all about the pianissimos. We've had the electric hush of Mark Elder and the AYO, the but-for-the-bows-moving-you'd-think-it-was-silence of Simon Rattle and the OAE, and last night Osmo Vanska and his Minnesota Orchestra introduced us to an even broader palette of shades in their programme of Barber, Bruckner and Shostakovich.
Vanska's particular gift for orchestral colour was shown to full advantage in an evening encompassing the very different demands of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, with its crucial textural negotiations between soloist and orchestra, and the sprawling orchestral concerto that is Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. We opened however with an unusual little amuse-bouche in the form of Samuel Barber's youthful orchestral flourish, the Music for a Scene from Shelley. This tone-poem in miniature sees Barber still trying to find his stylistic feet, flirting in turn with Debussy, Strauss and Mahler. Under Vanska's absolute control the diaphanous opening textures gave way to a fretting frenzy of brass and strings, its grandiose gestures reminding us of the scope of Barber's dramatic source – Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Over the course of just ten minutes Barber attempts the full gamut of human – and divine – emotion, a challenge doomed to failure, but here at least a noble and immaculately shaped one.
Young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been making waves internationally, and her performance of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto demonstrated why. With her full-toned legato and intelligent musicality hers is a technique built for Romantic repertoire; Elgar, Dvorak, Schumann, Brahms are all a given under the generous lyricism of her fingers, but last night she proved herself an altogether more interesting musician, tackling the angular, mature beauty of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto with a conviction I hadn’t thought her capable of.
We started briskly, with a warmly matter-of-fact delivery that lacked the raw edge of Rostropovich or even Schiff, relishing its own beauty perhaps a little too much to contemplate the bleak emotional landscape Shostakovich demands. The Moderato however saw self-consciousness fall away, as head finally won over heart in the battle of tone. Banishing the emotional buffer of her rich vibrato, she stripped her delivery back increasingly, allowing the bleak force of the chordal passages to strike her audience head-on, projected mercilessly and aggressively. This new directness came into its own in the Cadenza, whose hysterical urgency was contained within a dramatic trajectory that made musical sense of its outpourings without compromising their spontaneity or intensity.
Vanska, having kept his band on a tight leash through the opening Allegretto, now allowed them to have their heads for the Allegro con moto, at last releasing the full force of his brass. Though a little sloppy here, with the first horn noticeably unfocused at times, the effect with perfectly judged – emphatic without over-egging the composer's delicate dramatic structure. By way of encore Weilerstein offered some palate-cleansing Bach, its dancing runs playfully energised, but still carrying a slight emotional hangover from the concerto. It was a joyous display of technique, and my only criticism of this young star-in-the-making is that her musicianship can occasionally work against her, causing her to shape and nuance where simplicity might sometimes be best.
After the interval the orchestra moved into the foreground for the bloated programmatic epic that is Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. Performed in its revised 1888 version (the same used by Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra on their excellent recording), no amount of finesse or control could quite disguise the symphony’s lack of structural focus. With forms stretched beyond their elastic limit, listeners are thrown back upon an episodic appreciation of the work, enjoying (if at no point truly understanding) its elaborate series of narrative vignettes on their own terms.
Once again Vanska's precision was evident, summoning up a sweeping first subject whose richness was balanced by the sharp accents of the playful wind exchanges that followed. He drew an almost ecclesiastic texture from the ensemble of tremolo strings and horn (finally coming into its own), before relaxing into a delicately bucolic conclusion, a medieval tapestry landscape of benign fruitfulness.
The Scherzo and Trio were a highlight, their forthright brass utterances resonating freely in the Albert Hall's appropriately Brucknerian space, and leading us into the triumphal celebrations of the final movement. This is not a subtle symphony nor, to my mind, a great one; yet as a piece of unfettered, colouristic expression it goes a long way towards banishing any beige end-of-week sensations. Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra did it full justice. Whether it returned the favour however I am still not entirely convinced.
Photo: Alisa Weilerstein