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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1901/02)
Minnesota Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2016, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis.  DSD.
BIS BIS-2226 SACD [75:30]

Two of my colleagues have already reviewed this release but both did so in its download format; I have listened to it as an SACD, but in ‘plain’ stereo rather than the surround option. We sampled the recording recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Auditioning the disc in more depth on my own equipment confirmed the favourable impression we formed then. This is a very good recording, offering plenty of detail, reporting the sound of the orchestra in a very dynamic and pleasing way and giving an excellent sense of perspective.

This release intrigued me greatly. Osmo Vänskä is a conductor who I’ve admired very much in the music of Nielsen and Sibelius (review ~ review). I was also pretty impressed with his Beethoven symphony cycle. However, I’ve not previously associated him with the music of Mahler. Nor, for that matter, have I been aware of a great many Mahler recordings on the BIS label though their splendid recording techniques would be well suited to the music. Well, all that now seems set to change because this release is billed as the first instalment of a Mahler cycle and, indeed, the Second and Sixth symphonies are already ‘in the can’.

Vänskä gets off to an attention-grabbing start. The opening trumpet call is a bit too full-on for my taste but things soon settle down. Vänskä leads a fine account of the Funeral March; there’s good weight in the orchestral sound and the conductor ensures his players really observe the accents, even if some conductors – Bernstein and Tennstedt spring to mind – dig in even more. I considered quite carefully which version to use as a comparator and plumped in the end for the live version that Leonard Bernstein set down in Frankfurt-am-Main with the Vienna Philharmonic in September 1987 (review). Vänskä is very good in the opening paragraphs but Bernstein is even more imposing. The music becomes very wild (at 5:37 in the Vänskä performance), the maelstrom initiated by an anguished trumpet line. The episode fairly seethes in the Bernstein performance but he doesn’t have everything his own way; the Finnish conductor delivers a gripping performance but with greater clarity of texture than we experience on the DG disc. Throughout this movement you feel that every phrase - nay, every note - is significant in the Bernstein performance. Vänskä is a bit less intense, the interpretation somewhat more clear-eyed. Yet I think his account of the movement is a success. I mentioned that the BIS recording is excellent, and so it is. However, the thirty-year-old DG engineering has its plus points. Throughout the movement the soft tam-tam strokes, such a vital element when they occur, come across more satisfyingly on the DG recording and so too do the quiet contributions of the bass drum – for instance, in the closing bars.

The second movement, stormy blood-brother to the first, is marked Stürmisch bewegt. Mit großter Vehemenz. Vänskä starts off well but Bernstein is in a different league. His start is faster than Vänskä’s and, aided by scalding playing from the VPO, he conjures up a nightmarish vision. The music slows at 1:24 in the Vänskä reading and in this passage and, indeed, in all the slower episodes of the movement, the Finn is slightly slower than Bernstein. The difference in pace is not too significant but it seems to me that Lennie invests these slower episodes with more idiomatic ebb and flow. To be honest, I think he achieves this because he’s the more instinctive Mahlerian. There’s an extended recitative-like passage for the cellos at 4:45 and here Vänskä drops the dynamic to the merest whisper. Frankly, I think he overdoes it. Bernstein gets all the feeling out of the cello line but he doesn’t exaggerate the quiet dynamics. Furthermore, the cellos are underpinned by a hushed timpani roll; this is all but inaudible in the BIS recording but it’s accorded just the right degree of presence in the DG recording. Throughout this movement Vänskä’s performance of the quick passages is excellent though Bernstein will have you on the edge of your seat. It’s the slower episodes about which I’m more thoughtful when weighing up the Vänskä reading; I’m not wholly convinced.

In the central scherzo Vänskä is very well served by his principal horn player, Michael Gast. In fact, the entire orchestra plays excellently for him – as they do throughout the symphony. The Minnesotans bring out all the colours in Mahler’s scoring and the rhythms are lively and sharp. The BIS recording, with the excellent definition of detail that the engineers provide, is a considerable boon, too. Bernstein’s core tempo for the movement is a little steadier than the one that Vänskä adopts. It probably goes without saying that Lennie leads a vivid performance in which every detail, every nuance, counts for something. That said, I tend to prefer the Finn’s somewhat lighter touch.

It may well be that Vänskä’s approach to the famous Adagietto will sway your overall view of his reading of the symphony as a whole. In the last thirty years or so some conductors – though by no means all – have tended to take a pretty expansive view of this movement, no doubt taking note of Mahler’s Sehr Langsam marking. Conductors of an older generation tended to take the movement quite swiftly, Bruno Walter being the example most frequently cited. The late American writer, Michael Steinberg expressed the view that the “slow-and-slower tradition began to take hold firmly in the aftermath of Leonard Bernstein’s performance at Robert Kennedy’s funeral service in 1968.” He may well have a point, though it’s worth noting that in Bernstein’s first recording of the work he took 11:02 over this movement and that was in 1963. In 1987 Bernstein, showing consistency, played the movement in 11:13. Vänskä takes a full 12:36 over the movement. Not only is this slow; it feels slow. Indeed, I have over a dozen recordings of the symphony and this is the longest I know. It’s not just a question of a slow speed, though; Vänskä makes very heavy weather of things, despite the beautiful playing. In his hands the music lacks flow, even making allowance for Mahler’s hesitating rhythms. Bernstein is also very measured but he just about gets away with it thanks to the extra character of his performance. It was something of a relief to turn to Barbirolli’s 1969 EMI recording. Sir John, a conductor known for his expansiveness towards the end of his career, takes 9:52 and completely satisfies me: here is all the warmth and expressiveness you could wish for yet the line and flow is never sacrificed.

After that major disappointment Vänskä has some ground to make up. To a large extent he does so, leading a high-spirited account of what must surely be Mahler’s happiest symphonic movement. The performance is cheerful – there’s not a cloud in the sky - and it’s extremely well played by the Minnesotans. Indeed, listening to the playing you can readily understand why this symphony, with its barnstorming Rondo finish, has become such a favourite calling-card for touring orchestras. Vänskä’s view of the movement is clean, clear and bright-eyed and it’s pretty successful, even if the glorious reprise of the chorale (14:21), first encountered in the second movement, is not quite as overwhelming as I’d like. The Bernstein reading, however, oozes character – and he’s so exciting! At times, you fear that Bernstein’s fast speeds might run out of control but he keeps the performance on the leash – just – and sweeps the listener off his or her feet. Lennie’s chorale (13:50) is a moment of exultant grandeur before his pell-mell rush for the finish line. The first couple of times that I listened to the Vänskä performance I thought his account of the finale was pretty good – and so it is. However, when one makes comparisons, this movement shows Bernstein at his charismatic best and he leaves pretty much everyone in his wake.

This performance has many virtues, though the excessive treatment of the Adagietto is an issue for me. The reading is a little uneven overall, but it represents nonetheless a solid start to this Minnesota Mahler cycle. I found much to enjoy in the performance and I shall be very interested to hear what Osmo Vänskä – and the BIS engineers – make of the Second and Sixth symphonies.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Dan Morgan



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