Haydn, Symphony No.101 in D major, ‘Clock’
Szymanowski, Stabat mater (sung in Polish)
Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major
Helena Juntunen, soprano
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Scott Hendricks, baritone
Joshua Bell, violin
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Unmixed blessings. If I’ve given the pinched impression this summer that the Proms don’t deliver completely satisfying concerts, last night’s was the exception that proves the rule. I had wondered about the raves that Osmo Vänskä receives with his remote-north Minneapolis Symphony, a location as chilly as his native Finland. On records you can’t always judge the mettle of a conductor, and I discovered how far short my estimate of Vänskä was. Let’s bring him south more often. He’s a pleasure to watch, always alert, dropping his baton when he wants to mold the air expressively with both hands, and gifted with the kind of beat that draws real performances from hard-working musicians (a refreshing change from Daniel Barenboim’s show-offy impersonation two nights ago of a great maestro hypnotizing the masses). No musicians are harder working than the BBC Symphony, and as a result they can seem faceless, capable of proficiency but not inspiration. Or so they’ve sounded for most of the summer.
Vänskä woke them up in a sterling reading of Haydn’s ebullient “Clock” Symphony, one of the twelve he wrote for London. The key to Haydn is joyful rectitude, I decided. He’s the kind of man who would be happy to have God read his every thought. A plein air composer, one might say, always content to be in the light. The purity and simplicity of his symphonic ideas are deceptive, yet even at his most masterful, we don’t get Mozart’s cosmopolitan taste and undercurrent of melancholy. The “Clock” can be enjoyed by children, and yet it’s perfectly composed in every detail. Vänskä took a real interest in it, using about forty strings to balance the woodwinds without overwhelming them. Chords were impeccably voiced, and the repeats sounded different each time (he took them all, extending the symphony to half an hour, all of it delightful).
As stark contrast, the Stabat Mater of Szymanowski is exotic and fragile at the same time, straddling the world of the Church and the world of Debussy’s Paris, whose breezes wafted as far as Poland. The text, which has to do with Mary’s suffering at the foot of the Cross, grieves without much change of tone, and Szymanowski offers only slow music. Yet his writing is varied in timbre, including even a Chinese tamtam and glockenspiel—with its glittering surface, I can’t see the cathedral doors swinging open for this piece. The working out of choral and solo lines feels as gentle as Faure but with more sinuous harmonies. This could be Heddy Lamar weeping as easily as Our Lady of Sorrows, given the Hollywood tint of some passages. Here the chorus and vocal quartet, singing in Polish, were as good as one could wish for. The Szymanowski Stabat Mater won’t ever be a popular success, due to its absence of memorable melodies, but as always with his refined idiom. sophistication is tempered by emotional sincerity.
The crowd received the Haydn politely (this happens too often nowadays) and showed some enthusiasm for Szymanowski’s choral work—British audiences always perk up for those—but the real draw was Joshua Bell playing the Brahms Concerto. In my own mind I identify Bell as a natural musician, gifted with a beautiful tone (aided by his magnificent 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius) and refined taste. I have wondered, though, if he’s become overly refined in recent years at the expense of vitality, pushing Romantic tendencies to the verge of Kreislerism. On this occasion his playing was indeed sweetly romantic—Bell is incapable of scraping out an ugly note—but his musicality has only grown. What made this a memorable performance was the close collaboration between conductor and soloist; no battling for center stage as phrases melded seamlessly. Vänskä and Bell took a trim view of the first movement, keeping the climaxes well short of ocean swells, yet the Adagio was as broad as it needs to be, with the conductor pulling deep expressivity from the solo oboe. I was also happy that the finale turned into a true gypsy dance at an exciting allegro; too few soloists aree willing to let the music run away. Bell’s solo playing in the first-movement cadenza was technically breathtaking—he outplayed every violinist heard earlier this summer—its poise, utter ease, and beauty of tone sending chills up one’s spine. Joshua Bell must be the greatest native-born American violinist, if not of all time then certainly for this generation.
So here was a concert where the blessings weren’t mixed. Vänskä deserves to expand his range and appear with some great orchestras. The BBC Symphony needs someone who can consistently wake them up. Bell needs nothing but an audience to dazzle. I was reminded afresh that real musicality is a gift from the gods and has little to do with fame, even though fame may decide to follow in its golden wake.