A variable sea of music

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BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Glasgow City Hall

Osmo Vanska has an easy, spontaneous way with Beethoven, as though he were merely easing off the brakes and letting the music run downhill. The purling brook in the second movement of the Pastoral Symphony sounded so natural that it might have beenthe real thing. In this performance, the whole work was bright, sunny and fresh; quick yet somehow broad.

Cycles of Beethoven symphonies can only be justified if you have got something new to say. Vanska clearly has, though you might easily not notice. His tempi are rapid and there is no trace of sentimentality or fussy marking of phrases. He takes scary risks: the very quiet start to the Scherzo always sounded a bit cliff-hanging each time this passage occurred, and you wondered whether the smiling orchestral faces at the end were expressing satisfaction or relief.

But if the playing was occasionally tentative or loose, this confident musician also allowed traces of nonconformism, aware that his principal clarinet was a weaver of magic spells, his bassoonist a master of lyric charm, his flautist a conjurer of jewelled purity. Somehow, everything seemed easy, self-propelled, almost childlike.

There were two water-pieces in this concert, Sibelius's The Oceanides and an unfamiliar work, Geysir by the Icelander Jon Leifs. In some ways the Sibelius piece is an allegory of all his mature music, for the sea- nymphs of the title surface and disappear in the form of tiny wind figures amidst the huge groundswell of strings and horns, a familiar effect in the late symphonies. In fact, they were scarcely glimpsed in this performance, the massive breadth of Vanska's surging ocean engulfing everything.

As for Geysir, it was hard to understand why the orchestra had elected to play this brainless piece. Leifs was born in 1899, and his style might be compared to Bax or Kodly, but without a trace of their variety or personality. This number, portraying an eruption of boiling water from an Icelandic geyser, was a string of common chords pumped out by brass and woodwind with a lot of percussive noise. With all its racket, there was no real sense of climax or massed effect.

Berg's Violin Concerto might seem an obvious companion for the Pastoral, with its classical construction and its folk tunes. But Jennifer Koh played it with lugubrious over-solemnity, killing off its lilting dances and reducing the first part to a moody reverie. Her playing was occasionally rather unprojected, and everything sounded the same. It was like swimming in treacle. Even the Bach chorale tune squelched into limp sentiment when the violin took over. The conductor looked thoroughly glum to be deprived of all his brightness and vigour - as well he might.