The distinguished Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä was the Cleveland Orchestra’s guest this weekend leading revivals of familiar works by Grieg and Sibelius. The real find on the program, however, was Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony no. 1, op.24 from 1970-71. Vänskä and the orchestra gave this striking one-movement work an urgently brilliant performance.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

Finnish composer Sallinen created a work that is more a development of harmonies, orchestral textures and short musical motifs, rather than melody. Opening with a widely spaced minor triad, and a grace-note-like ascending musical figure that returns repeatedly through the 15 minute work, the composer creates thick polyphonic textures, with long held notes moving at slightly different speeds, decorated with glittering percussion sonorities. The music gradually builds to a climax, then descending passages and a solo cello line paired with a solo flute in very low range lead to a grinding dirge-like passage. The tempo throughout remains more or less the same, even when Sallinen invents an ominously slow waltz with a unison melody spread through the orchestra. Suddenly, the whole moving apparatus comes to an abrupt halt. This was a brilliant work and a performance of commitment, worthy of a repeated hearing sometime soon. The Thursday night Severance Hall audience – not known for welcoming modern music – gave the performance a surprisingly (and deservedly) warm round of applause at its conclusion.

 Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16, completed in 1868 when the composer was 24 years old, was immediately popular and has become without doubt one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, probably in competition with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 for the top spot. Yet despite the success, Grieg spent most of the remainder of his composing career creating smaller works such at the Lyric Pieces for solo piano. The Cleveland Orchestra used to perform it with some frequency, but it seems to have fallen away in recent years. The concerto needs a soloist with an outsize Romantic musical personality, which the Clevelanders found in Garrick Ohlsson, a long-time and frequent collaborator with the orchestra. It was such a pleasure to luxuriate in Grieg’s melodies, and filigreed passagework. The opening timpani roll and famous descending solo piano passage set the tone for a musically sensible and enjoyable performance. Vänskä and Ohlsson did not espouse any particular “concept”; everything was in its place, but didn’t seem as if it was all by rote. The musical line was flexible, but never to the detriment of the overall pulse. The second movement’s seamless opening chorale had the sense of suspended time just before the piano solo’s first entrance. Throughout the performance, Ohlsson and Vänskä made it all seem easy.

Vänskä is a noted interpreter of the Sibelius symphonies, having completed a recorded cycle with the Finnish Lahti Symphony Orchestra, of which Vänskä was chief conductor from 1988 to 2008. More recently he has been the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra and was in the midst of re-recording the Sibelius symphonies with that organization when their year-long labor difficulties intervened. He has recently been re-engaged to resume his post with the Minnesota Orchestra, so there is some hope of having that cycle completed. His performance of Sibelius’s Symphony no. 5 in E flat major, op.82, was evidence of the acclaim that Vänskä has received elsewhere. He tapped the virtuoso resources of the Cleveland Orchestra in support of the composer’s wishes. At many points he brought the dynamic down to barely audible, controlling the amount of sound very carefully and keeping everything in balance, and bringing out the many instrumental solos. The mysterious bassoon solo in the first movement was especially effective, as were the later trumpet fanfares with the accompanying wind decoration. Sibelius’ use of the intervals of parallel thirds in the second movement contrasted with the widely spaced thirds in the third movement, used eventually as an ostinato behind the wind melodies. The symphony’s extended final cadence in lesser hands could be a mess, with the sharply accented chords separated by grand pauses; here, attacks and releases were completely together, as if created by a single large orchestral organ. The performance brought to a close a musically satisfying evening at Severance Hall.