Rare it is for me to attend the last concert in the series of final concerts to the Minnesota Orchestra’s season, but I went to their final, last concert yesterday afternoon. The program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. My seat was in the first tier, the last row house right, and much to my surprise, was excellent for sound and OK for sight. It’s difficult to find a bad seat for sound in Orchestra Hall, but I usually prefer to sit closer to the stage. Yesterday, however, because of the Bruckner, I was happy about the distance.
In a commanding performance of the Beethoven, the Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin gave a preview of the recording that he’s making with the Orchestra and Osmo Vanska this week. Sudbin plays with a clear tone, each note distinct, precise, and with fluid phrasing where indicated. Listening to him is a sublime experience, mystical, joyful, complete. He and Mr. Vanska are of the same cloth regarding Beethoven: loyal to the composer’s score and intentions, including tempo and dynamics. My only quibble came with the final movement, which sounded far too heavy and pounding and would have benefitted from Sudbin lightening his approach a bit. He and the Minnesota Orchestra are about halfway through their project of recording the full set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. I look forward to these CDs.
As I watched Sudbin, I thought of Evan Quinn’s friend, Vasia, a young Russian pianist in Perceval. I don’t know Sudbin personally, but I do know Vasia. His approach to the Beethoven would have been similar to Sudbin’s, but with a bit more physical drama. And where Sudbin is tall, slender and dark-haired, Vasia is built like a wrestler with long, curly blonde hair. As I’ve also worked on programming Evan’s concerts, I found it interesting that Mr. Vanska had programmed two long works for this concert. Music overflowed past the customary two hour mark, but I don’t think anyone was complaining.
Both works on the program required stamina but the contrast between them brought each composer’s talents into focus. Beethoven clearly was the more sophisticated composer in his musical ideas and their development. Bruckner, however, showed off the colors and power of the orchestra much more, as well as challenging dynamic control and ensemble playing. The Minnesota Orchestra was more than equal to the task and I continue to be impressed with the clarity and discipline of their ensemble playing. I had attended the pre-concert talk given by Phillip Gainsley about this symphony, which helped me to understand Bruckner’s place in 19th century music. Bruckner’s vocation as an organist influenced his approach to orchestral composition, but also the simplicity of his life’s background: he was a country boy, and even though he lived for many years in Vienna, Austria, he remained a country boy in his outlook, and in his direct, simple approach to his musical ideas. My impression is that he tried to make the symphony orchestra into an organ.
I’m not a huge fan of Bruckner’s music. To my ears, it’s choppy, at times bombastic, and he could have benefitted from a really good editor (like Richard Wagner, his idol). However, I’m a huge fan of the Minnesota Orchestra, and it’s always fun to hear them play challenging music like Bruckner’s symphonies. And now Minnesota Public Radio has this performance available for FREE download at its classical music website. Click on “Music on Demand” and follow the instructions to download Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (or Stravinsky’s Petroushka). You can hear for yourself what this performance sounded like….