When there's a Finnish guest conductor, there's Sibelius. This rule of programmers' stereotyping is so fixed that even Esa-Pekka Salonen doesn't always escape. No chance then for Osmo Vänskä, visiting the BBC Symphony Orchestra with credentials that include an admired set of Sibelius symphony recordings, and sure enough there was the tone poem "Tapiola" to start the evening. It turned out finely detailed and excitable with woodwind leading the action, short of the big picture – and not typical of the rest of the concert, a strange collation of four pieces, any three of which went together.
Centrepiece was the Cello Concerto No 1 by Shostakovich, featuring the Norwegian soloist Truls Mork. Some cellists, such as Rostropovich, play through their instrument, using it as a vehicle for urgent expression. Mork first of all plays the instrument itself, and who would blame him? He has an 18th-century Italian cello with such superb tone you could listen all day just to the sound. Mork treated it, and the concerto, with love, respect and a highly disciplined technique. That took him a good way down the road with Shostakovich, and this performance had a steady lucid gaze which led to several moments of musical illumination. It's unusual to hear in full how ingeniously the final stages superimposed music from earlier on, because you often just see the cellist scrubbing away while the orchestra takes over. With Vänskä a like-minded collaborator, this time all was clarity. Still, while it's someway down the road it's not the full distance, because if good behaviour were all that Shostakovich was about, he'd have had a rather different time with the Soviet censors.
The concert's extra egg turned out to be the "Fairytale Poem" by Sofia Gubaidulina, and you could hear why it got there – it's so captivating that it just had to be slipped in. She wrote it 30 years ago as music for a children's radio story, and didn't for a long while want it played alone. But this isn't the dodgy kind of children's music that talks down, it's grown-up Gubaidulina only in miniature, making the most of the light textures to produce magical sound and an unforgettable arching tune that finally flowers high on the strings.
After the quirky Beethoven that London has been having from Michael Tilson Thomas and Mikhail Pletnev here at last was some sane Beethoven. The playing in his Symphony No 7 was strong, soundly balanced and vigorous, at a fairly road pace in the first two movements and on the safe side of fast later on. Shunning traditional Viennese-style habits, it did exceptionally well with the tricky things – obsessive rhythmic patterns, long crescendos.
But this is the composer's least sane symphony and, as with Shostakovich, it needs more than discipline to work. There's a dimension missing from Vänskä's rigid, unchanging speeds – the sense of playing dangerously with time – without which Beethoven lacks his full, awesome charge of new-found freedom.Reuse content