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Ludwig Von Beethoven
Symphonies No. 1 in C Major, op. 21 and No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" 
Osmo Vanska conducting the Minnesota Orchestra 
Review by Max Westler

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  Let me say right up front that I'm no fan of original instrument performances. What began as a curiosity — wouldn't it be interesting to hear what earlier composers heard when they listened to or performed their own music — has since hardened into a rigid ideology: if it's not on original instruments, it can't be authentic. Whatever the practice has accomplished for the likes of Bach and Handel, to my (admittedly prejudiced) ears, it's done absolutely nothing for Beethoven. Thin-sounding, high-pitched strings, sour, bleating winds, flaccid horns, and sloppy ensemble take the life out of Beethoven's remarkable orchestration. Worse, when it comes to interpretation, original instrument conductors seem fixed on alternating between two basic tempos: breakneck and breathless for the faster music, limp and inexpressive for the more lyric episodes. The case against this approach is simply put: by obscuring his genius for architecture and development, it makes Beethoven seem a less great, less accomplished composer than he really is.

Given the recent profusion of original instrument performances of these symphonies, Osmo Vanska's modern instrument alternatives — his first big project since taking over as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra — sound positively retrograde, but are full of old-fashioned virtues. For one thing, the orchestra sounds sensational. Though rarely included in a list of America's top orchestras — the New York, Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland always seem to take precedence — the Minnesota has in fact been making great recordings since the storied days of Antal Dorati — as most collectors already know. Here they play with urgency, unanimity, and total commitment. There's a refreshing transparency that clarifies Beethoven's rich textures without any loss of vivacity or warmth.

Vanska began his career as a specialist in the music of Sibelius and Nielsen, but he is every bit as convincing an interpreter of Beethoven. His approach to both symphonies is essentially classical, and that puts him in the very good company of conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, and George Szell. Like them, he's able to strike a convincing balance between sonata form and deep feeling. Also like them, his tempos are brisk, but never seem rushed. He lets the music breathe, the big melodies sing out.

In the Pastoral, the first movement's "happy feelings" awaken with a mounting intensity that builds to an unusually powerful conclusion. The "Scene by the Brook" will probably not please those who prefer the music taken at a more leisurely pace, but Vanska is never rigid here, his tempos convincingly natural and flowing. The "Peasant's merrymaking" that follows is very merry indeed, the thunderstorm appropriately frightening in its ferocity, and the "Shepherd's hymn" heartfelt at a true allegretto that avoids the sentimentality with which it is sometimes presented. In Vanska's hands, the climax is all the more compelling for having been so well prepared for. As for the First Symphony, this performance brings to mind Toscanini's opera buffa take on the work. Vanska lets us hear the influence of Haydn while being true to Beethoven's boisterous, rough-hewn humor.

Vanska's recordings of Sibelius and (later) Nielsen were remarkable sonic achievements, and these are certainly no less so. I'm not sure if I've ever heard better sounding recordings of these symphonies. Overall, these performances project all the immediacy and power of live music making and take the full measure of these familiar works. For those who insist on original instrument authenticity, the punishment fits the crime. For the rest of us, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota restore these works to their true glory.





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