Festival Music

Minnesota Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Martin Kershaw

three stars

THE Minnesota Orchestra has something of an association with Sibelius, and a successful one at that, winning a Grammy award in 2014 for its recording of the First and Fourth Symphonies. Add to this a Finnish conductor (Osmo Vanska) and featured soloist (Pekka Kuusisto), and this concert’s all-Sibelius first half seemed an exciting prospect.

Things certainly began well enough – the brooding, sombre opening of Pohjola’s Daughter was sensitively crafted, expressive and evocative. But as soon as a more rhythmic, dynamic energy was required, things tended to unravel. The pulsing string figures lost rigidity, the woodwind and brass melodies overlaying them lacked coherence; finely wrought, dovetailing lines didn’t link up cleanly. Lesson: the sheer emotive power of such late Romantic repertoire does not preclude the necessity for unity in phrasing and timing; it depends upon it.

A similar problem emerged in the Violin Concerto that followed, in spite of Vanska’s tireless, exhortative direction. Kuusisto played with gusto and a gratifyingly meaty tone, but was dogged throughout by intonation issues, blurry phrasing and insecure tempo. Keeping things together was frequently a struggle; the middle section of the Adagio fell dangerously out of sync and the final movement suffered similarly.

And yet they came out after the interval and absolutely nailed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the wall. Total commitment from the outset, raging through that iconic opening, luxuriating in the conciliatory second subject and expansive Andante, triumphant in the final Allegro-Presto. Finally the ensemble had found its stride, playing as one in a performance of uplifting authority and power. It’s just a shame that the same could not be said of what had preceded it.