What makes a Russian epic an epic? From Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, these vast works take audiences through lengthy journeys, remarkable for their drama, emotional breadth, and complexity. Dutch conductor Otto Tausk and the Vancouver Symphony offered not one, but two such epics – Shostakovich’s theatrical and conflicted First Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninov’s majestic Symphonic Dances. However, despite some excellent playing by violinist Simone Lamsma, the evening failed to reach Tolstoy-esque levels of drama.

Simone Lamsma © Otto van den Toorn
Simone Lamsma
© Otto van den Toorn

The evening started off with Wagner’s rousing overture to The Flying Dutchman, perennially popular as a concert opener due to its vivid depiction of a turbulent storm at sea. Under Tausk’s baton, this tepid performance seemed rather more like a tempest in a teapot. Though they produced some mightily impressive sounds and were outstanding in their consistency, the brass section was too often allowed to cover the rest of the orchestra, meaning that the whirling runs in the string section failed to register. Things improved with the woodwind interludes, Tausk eliciting a wonderful folk-like sound from the oboes and clarinets. However, his choice to take the climactic coda at a sudden glacial pace nearly collapsed in on itself, with mistimed entrances and a loss of the momentum that is so crucial for the piece.

Happily, Tausk took a more decisive approach to Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Written in 1940, the three-movement orchestral suite was Rachmaninov’s final composition and represents the epitome of his considerable skill in orchestral writing. Switching on a dime between an almost neoclassical rhythmic precision and the lush, sumptuous string melodies that Rachmaninov had mastered, it shows off nearly everything a Romantic orchestra could desire. The Vancouver Symphony was on fine form, showing the precision and dexterity required for Rachmaninov’s florid counterpoint in the outer movements. Woodwind solos, especially the famous alto saxophone, were uniformly excellent. However, the performance overall still seemed to fall within a limited dynamic range – the nostalgic, almost La Valse-like mood of the second movement was missing, and the Dies irae quotations in the final movement were hardly as terrifying as they should be.

Happily, the evening was redeemed by Simone Lamsma’s blistering of Shostakovich’s concerto. The young Dutch violinist has recently been making waves with her performances of 20th- and 21st-century concertos, and her comfort with a wide range of idioms was on full display. This was particularly notable in the opening Nocturne, started with no vibrato and building in intensity and volume throughout the long movement. The end of the movement, played con sordino, was ravishing in its hushed intensity. The second and fourth movements, devilish in their difficulty, were impressively intense, Lamsma opting to use a harsher, uglier tone when required. Her playing easily encompassed the wide-ranging techniques required, though her heavily articulated sound occasionally came at the expense of a true legato sound. She was at her best in the five-minute cadenza, drawing in the audience effectively and taking them through a tremendous, exhausting journey – an epic in miniature.