The best in music is revelation. The greatest performances and the most enchanting new works are those which open our minds to new musical possibilities and set loose our passions. Osmo Vänskä certainly provided revelation, bringing to the Melbourne Symphony a subtlety, power and musical originality that it has long lacked.

Frank Peter Zimmermann © Harald Hoffmann│hänssler CLASSIC
Frank Peter Zimmermann
© Harald Hoffmann│hänssler CLASSIC

The concert began with the Australian première of Minea – Concertante Music for Orchestra by Kalevi Aho. Vänskä has been a diehard proponent of Aho’s music for many years, and had his Minnesota Orchestra commission and première this work in 2009. It is a demanding, emotionally exhausting journey, exploring the interconnections between Indian, Arabic, Japanese and Scandinavian musical traditions. Echoes of Bartók, Gubaidulina and even Hisaishi swelled and faded as Vänskä pushed the orchestra to the limits of its endurance and skill. Shimmering trumpets and bells gave way to intricate passagework in the winds, bringing to mind a soft desert breeze. The finale was a rousing prestissimo, a frantic plunge toward oblivion, with brass and darbuka drums in full force. Tim Buzbee, the MSO’s principal tuba player, is worthy of particular commendation: his ferocity and focused tone provided a relentless drive in the sections lacking percussion. The explosive ending left the audience in a state of shock, and had those sceptical of contemporary art music questioning their convictions.

Anything that followed needed to be spectacular; thankfully this was Frank Peter Zimmermann. Mr Zimmermann is arguably one of the greatest living violinists. He has won everything, recorded everything, and performed with everyone. Here he was playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto under, to my mind, the finest of Sibelius interpreters (Vänskä’s recordings of Sibelius with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra are unrivalled).

Needless to say we had high expectations as the baton fell. The strings began a little raggedly; the opening – a muted pianissimo pattern from F to A – always takes a bar to settle. But when it does, and the solo violin enters at mezzo forte, magic can happen. Mr Zimmermann began to play, a solitary figure hunched over his Lady Inchiquin Stradivarius, and we couldn’t help but be ensorcelled. The timbres he can ring from that wonder of wood are mind-boggling! The intensity of his tone and the ringing tragedy of his interpretation took us through snow-blanketed Scandinavian forests in desperate search of loves lost.

The second movement is a calmer melancholy, as of a mourner resigned to his grief. Sorrow flows through it with a reflective reverence, gaining strength as memories of joy return, only to fade as the mind quietens, ending with a hauntingly pure pianissimo in the strings and solo violin.

The Allegro, ma non tanto was taken quite quickly, a rollicking romp through the snowfields. The orchestra was on particularly fine form, providing the perfect complement to Zimmermann’s deeply considered and technically pristine performance. Vänskä’s attention to detail, and in particular, to dynamic contrast, added a lively electricity to the work and the bass projection of the hall was particularly suited to capturing the tones of Scandinavia.

I have listened to this concerto hundreds of times, at the hands of many different soloists. Zimmermann here, though, was a revelation. The clarity he brought to the double and triple stopped passages was sublime and the placement of accents was wonderfully original. The cadenzas in particular, were pure, graceful and powerful. I dislike his liberal use of portamento, which made some otherwise sombre sections sound a little drunken, but that may be a personal problem.

The concerto concluded to rousing applause and Zimmermann returned to deliver an hypnotic encore – the Prelude to Bach’s Partita no.3, which was received with a glowing ovation. There were, of course, a few niggling complaints in the first half – the brass playing into their stands, raggedness in some of the faster passagework in the winds, and rhythmic and stylistic problems in the fourth and fifth desks of the first violins, but these are mere quibbles.

After the interval came the work for which the concert was titled. Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is a stalwart of the orchestral repertoire, always guaranteed to draw the crowds. Of most interest, through its four familiar movements, was the restraint and dynamic variation of Vänskä’s interpretation. The sudden dynamic changes and the colourful climaxes served to brilliantly highlight the thematic transitions. It was brisk, crisp and well done.

Sadly the orchestra was let down by its horn section which, far from being the Achilles of the piece, rather ended up as the spear, flubbing passage after passage. There were also some rhythmic problems in the upper strings, particularly in their exposed solo passages. Yet the performance was still a fine one, and demonstrated Vänskä’s immense creative talent. As with the rest of the evening, the “Eroica” provided moments of true revelation – a rarity in a work so frequently performed.

****1