There is nothing vaguely felt in Osmo Vänskä's Sibelius Symphony No. 2. He feels strongly about it all. When it's fast, it should be very fast. When it's stern or emphatic, the music scolds. Tenderness slows to the point where it threatens to dissolve.
Many listeners will like his way with Sibelius' most popular symphony, which had a long history here before the Finnish conductor brought it to the Philadelphia Orchestra. But to anyone whose ear was set by any of the three Ormandy recordings of the work, Vänskä's interpretation may sound more like an act of perfidy than revelation.
Visits from the Minnesota Orchestra's music director are always bracing, but this performance (heard yesterday afternoon) went beyond. You had to admire some of his control. Dynamics were set to impressively specific levels. A stretch near the end went like this: a laser-beam punch from the trombones, an entire orchestra dropping back to nothing, and then the last few bars in a blaze. The transition from the third movement to the last was a smart rush of adrenaline.
Vänskä, though, does not have an ear for two important ensemble elements. He passed over balancing chords and certain sections to emphasize important voices, and he did not seem interested in being curator of a particular kind of orchestral sound.
His proclivity for contrast sapped the first movement of its momentum. If some listeners might consider Ormandy too prosaic, Vänskä was terribly nervous. Ormandy unfolded inevitably; Vänskä in a series of fits and starts. The school of thought that mistakes faster tempos for insight never seemed more hollow.
The orchestra gave him what he wanted, and some solos triumphed as welcome moments of refinement. In particular, flutist David Cramer and principal trumpeter David Bilger were lyrical relief.
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger didn't make an enormous impression in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 - it's not a piece that invites deep thought - but he had plenty of power and polish. Cellist Efe Baltacigil offered more charisma in his short solos than some other cellists can summon all season.
Vänskä brought as overture Minea, Concertante Music for Orchestra (2008) by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho - 18 minutes of building, falling back, then building again. Its momentum is more intermittent than the rolling steam of Honegger's Pacific 231, but it's a compelling ride nonetheless.