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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 in C minor "Resurrection"
Ruby Hughes (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo)
Minnesota Chorale
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minnesota, 2017
SACD/CD Hybrid Stereo/Surround 5.0, reviewed in surround
BIS BIS2296 SACD [84.38]

Mahler's Second Symphony emerged very slowly over the period 1888 to 1894 with most of the work taking place towards the end of that time. The first movement was conceived separately as a symphonic poem he called Totenfeier or Funeral Rites. Mahler soon began to think that it needed to be partnered by further movements. The result was very long, even more so than Beethoven's Choral Symphony, and required huge musical forces. The story of its inspiration and the trials and tribulations Mahler went through to complete and perform it have filled epic numbers of pages. Henry-Louis de la Grange's exhaustively detailed writings are well worth the time needed to read them and if the excellent booklet notes by Jeremy Barham in this BIS issue spark your further interest, de la Grange, who died a couple of years ago, is as good a source as any for enlightenment in very great depth.

Depth is what any performance of this work needs and depth does not necessarily mean length. Considering favourites of mine, one of the very greatest Mahler 2 recordings is that well-known speed merchant Otto Klemperer whose 1963 performance with his Philharmonia Orchestra polished it off in just under 80 minutes. At around the same time Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic took about 83 minutes, whilst three years later the new kid on the block, Georg Solti took just short of 82 minutes with the London Symphony. Vänskä is not out of line with these at 84 minutes. Curiously he often seems slower than that implies and that is explained by the fact that he is also a lot faster at other times. My attention was often drawn to the way he makes more extreme tempo changes. Vänskä is known for his attention to detail and it was that which informed many of his famous Sibelius recordings. He always seemed aware of fine points of orchestration and be able to make them stand out so that one felt one was listening to something previously unnoticed, something new. He certainly applies that approach here and one is constantly alerted to the effects Mahler produces. At the start this has a downside in that the long line keeps being interrupted as the conductor points up yet another interesting idea. The second and third movements are full of such things and one begins to wish for the long, predictable line that such as Bruno Walter and more recently Claudio Abbado (particularly from Lucerne) have taught us is the way this music should go. However for Vänskä it changes at the key central point, the setting of Urlicht, and from here on he raises his eyes to the distant horizon as he builds the symphony to what is as vast a close as I can remember. He still does not sound like everyone else and is therefore very much worth hearing.

Of course Vänskä is, strictly speaking, not heard at all. So a comment on those actually heard, the singers, chorus and orchestra, is necessary. I wish it was possible to see this performance on video so one could assess how the very fine Minnesota band respond to Vänskä . I cannot, so can only judge by results. They have all the precision one could wish for and a weighty sound when required. At the opening, the cellos - from the left for a change - have a bite to their sound, allowing the conductor's fast tempo to tell clearly. They don't have the attack of Solti's famous LSO of 1966, at least they don't sound as rich, but that could be a matter of microphone placement. They sound splendid in every department showing that their time with this conductor is a match for the 1950s when they were called the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and worked under Antal Dorati, immortalised on some famous Mercury Living Presence records. The Minnesota Chorale as recorded must number about 150, going by the publicity photo on the booklet, and they sound a very fine body. The two singers, Sasha Cooke (mezzo) and Ruby Hughes (soprano), make a first class job of the challenging music they have to sing. Sasha Cooke has to make the quietest of entries in Urlicht, one of Mahler's many wonderful Wunderhorn settings, and then metaphorically duck as Mahler launches one of the fiercest and loudest attacca markings in the symphonic literature. Ruby Hughes has an analogous moment when her voice emerges from the chorus having started as one of the mass. This is quite magical and in BIS' dynamic recording it is even more striking a piece of musical theatre. Both singers are experienced artists and this shows even in these brief parts. They stand comparison with any of the competition and are recorded better than most.

The arrival of this third episode of Vänskä's new Mahler cycle, the 5th and 6th preceded this 2nd, bring the total number of Mahler "Resurrection" Symphonies in my collection to twenty-five. Does that count as excessive? I'm sure it does. It is also a reflection of how long I have loved this epic work. I encountered it back in the 1960s when I purchased disc 2 of Bruno Walter's New York recording on Philips LP and immediately started saving up for disc 1 (available separately as the reviewers said in those days). It must have been doubly frustrating because that issue was auto-coupled so I must have had just the middle three movements to start with. How times have changed with this latest SACD containing an 84 minute performance on just a single disc in the most spectacular multichannel sound. Even the SACD has been overtaken as a carrier, so to keep my judgements in some sort of context, I also listened to another older recording just issued on Blu-ray Audio by Universal and which I purchased about a month ago, the Kubelik set also from the 1960s, which has all Mahler's symphonies (well nearly - the 10th is incomplete) on a single BDA in very impressive stereo. Kubelik takes just 76 minutes, very much faster. Listening to Kubelik the day after Vänskä proved enlightening. Kubelik also keeps this music clear and detailed but without such extremes. Since his overall speed is very fast the effect is of huge excitement building to an equally effective but less solemn coda - and that old 1969 recording is surprisingly good heard in 24/96 from the Blu-ray. I should add that, as I write, the very latest issue of just about all Mahler's output on a single BDA performed by the Concertgebouw and Haitink is en route to become my next Mahlerian indulgence - a Universal/Decca box of 12 CDs and 1 Blu-ray Audio.

Vänskä's recording is very wide range in both frequency response and dynamics. The very end will challenge your playback system if you have set the volume so that the faintest details are just audible and are determined to let the loud passages play out. The bells peal distantly - dubbed in from an unnamed church I am told and sounding very rich indeed. The preceding live performances used the orchestra's own tubular bells but I guess these were judged as insufficiently imposing. The organ is an electronic device recorded as it sounded through the hall loudspeakers and the effect is somewhat of a wodge of bass lacking much character. The recording team were aware that this was suboptimal (excuse the audio pun!) and I gather that they plan something more effective when they get around to the 8th Symphony in two or three years time.
Dave Billinge

Previous review: John Quinn

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