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September 5, 2013 6:07 pm
This must be a frustrating time for Osmo Vänskä. The hard-working Finnish conductor has spent the past 12 months watching helplessly while the Minnesota Orchestra, the American ensemble he took to new heights of international renown, has dug itself into a hole in an increasingly bitter contract dispute with its employer. In all that time it has given no concerts. Unless the matter can be resolved this month, Vänskä will almost certainly say farewell.
In such a context his Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra probably touched a nerve. It was built on the theme of musical farewells, and Vänskä must have found it hard not to speculate on how much more finesse he could have summoned if he had been conducting the same pieces with his Minnesotans. The BBCSO’s rough-and-unready Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony sounded under-rehearsed. Its only stand-out feature was Vänskä’s courageous decision to cut straight from the brash third-movement march to the tragic finale, denying the usual applause (as few conductors dare to do), but driving home the music’s contrast between public show and private grief.
Tchaikovsky’s valedictory work sat uncomfortably in this sequence of musical farewells. After Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and a new orchestration of Vaughan Williams’s Four Last Songs, it sounded like the potboiler it should never be. Górecki’s troubled and troubling work, an hour-long setting of three poems about loss, held 6,000 souls in a trance, in no small part thanks to Vänskä’s unforced supervision. Consisting of far more repetition than development, it is less a musical statement than a communal act of reflection, hovering between prayer and hypnotic chant. It would have been an even more emotionally draining experience if the soprano Ruby Hughes had learned the words rather than reading them from the score. A Proms debutante, she broke into tears at the end.
Jennifer Johnston, the mezzo soloist in Anthony Payne’s delicate Vaughan Williams orchestration, also sang from the heart – but had taken the trouble to learn the words, projecting them with a quiet radiance that commanded attention. With a noble timbre reminiscent of Janet Baker, she found an unexpected kinship between these modest songs and Elgar’s Sea Pictures .
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