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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”) (1887/88, rev. 1893, 1896, 1898)
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2018, Orchestra Hall, Minnesota, USA
BIS BIS2346 SACD [55:51]

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä’s ongoing Mahler series on BIS with his Minnesota Orchestra appears to have achieved almost as much controversy as praise among reviewers. Thus far he’s done Symphonies 2, 5 and 6, and not one has avoided mixed reaction. One aspect about all the performances that has seemed to garner unanimity of praise among critics, however, is the excellent work of the Minnesota Orchestra. And here in this new recording of the First, once again, they play superbly: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and offstage players combine to execute the music with precision and spirit. That said, I would expect the controversies to continue because of the interpretation of this new Titan.

Actually, there’s nothing particularly radical about this reading: Vänskä doesn’t attempt to etch out some new view of the work, nor is his phrasing unusual in any significant way. Granted, his tempos are somewhat on the expansive side, with an overall timing of 55:51. (On the back cover the timing is listed as 56:45, and in the booklet as 56:10, but the individual movements add up to 55:51.) Of the ten recordings I have of this symphony, this one is the second slowest, Chailly on an Accentus Blu-ray disc with the Gewandhaus Orchestra being just seconds longer and quite convincing. There are one or two other performances that are perhaps a minute or two quicker. Thus, in its pacing this is not extreme, but there is another factor: what stands out about Vänskä’s reading, in paradoxical terms, is its straightforwardness, its centrist character. Indeed, and one may thus say this performance can be heard as a sort of objective take on Mahler or as Mahler bleached of emotional excess. So does this approach work?

In fact, in most ways it does. It is certainly true that some conductors exaggerate the high and low points in Mahler, italicizing extremes and mood swings, often seizing upon the minutest emotional tic as something to highlight. Vänskä, on the other hand, takes a more temperate view of Mahler here. He generally follows the composer’s directions in the score: while he does play down some rubato indications, he pretty accurately observes markings for tempo, dynamics, accents and other aspects of phrasing, and as suggested he obtains excellent playing from his orchestra, with plenty of meaningful detail presented and with proper balances.

The first movement unfolds nicely in the opening, as the music exudes a sense of mystery amid the slow awakening of the instruments in this picture of nature. The fanfare from clarinets and off-stage trumpets and the two-note motif build deftly toward the arrival of the first melody, a jovial, chipper tune taken from Mahler’s “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (I went over the field this morning), one of the songs from his collection Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Vänskä and his players effectively convey the proper feeling of playfulness and joy here, and then in the development and intersection of themes that come later, the music builds toward a convincing sense of triumph and happiness at the end. The first movement comes off well then, if not with the last ounce of committedness. The ensuing panel is perhaps the most successful of the four: it is lighter in its rhythmic springiness and bouncy manner than what one encounters in many other performances. The playing by the orchestra fully captures the color and robust bucolic character of the music throughout. Here again Mahler incorporates thematic ideas from an early song, Hans und Grethe.

The third movement opens with a fine, solemn rendering of the funeral march (a clever distortion of the Frère Jacques theme), but the Klezmer music that follows is somewhat restrained here, lacking the earthy, sassy manner it should have. But the next theme (from "Die zwei blauen Augen", also sourced in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) has a pleasantly serene and diverting character, and the rest of the movement goes reasonably well, though again the Klezmer music could have more spirit in its reappearances. The finale opens with the requisite feeling of urgency and turbulence, the orchestra playing with accuracy, grit and spirit. The quieter music that follows is well shaped and executed, and as the music builds with earlier themes eventually presented, the tension is effectively maintained to set the stage for the triumphant ending. Well imagined and executed as this grand climax is here, one likely yearns a bit for that sense of Mahlerian over-the-top ecstasy, that extra bit of thrust and rapture heard from Abbado, Bernstein and some others. Still, Vänskä and company deliver a fine performance of this ending and the whole movement.

BIS provides excellent and well balanced sound reproduction on this SACD, in the end yielding as much detail in this symphony as I’ve ever heard before. In fact, this may be the finest sounding Mahler First ever, and on the performance side, this must be assessed as a very convincing account overall. The trouble is, as so many readers know, there is a plethora of competition in Mahler’s symphonies, this one in particular since it has been the most recorded of all of them, despite, in my view, being the composer’s least effective symphony. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on Sony are very fine, and the conductor’s later recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is said to be even better. (I was greatly impressed by excerpts of it that I managed to hear.) On video, the aforementioned Riccardo Chailly, as well as Paavo Järvi, with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra on C Major/Unitel Classica, and Claudio Abbado, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on Euroarts, are all excellent. If you acquire this new Mahler First led by Maestro Vänskä, you will be well served, though you could do somewhat better.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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