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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.1 in D Major
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2018, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
BIS BIS-2346 SACD [56:45]

This is a good time to be a Mahlerian, with ongoing cycles from many of the finest conductors, notably the Fischer brothers, Iván with his Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel, and Ádám with the Düsseldorf Symphony on C-Avi, as well as Osmo Vänskä’s blossoming cycle. Each has its own insights and virtues, and I would not be without any of them. It is a positive cornucopia, compared with my first experiences of Mahler more than half a century ago. The first live performance I heard was Klemperer conducting the 9th Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967; the first recording – Paul Kletzki’s 1st in the same year. Recordings, before Kubelik’s great cycle, were relatively rare. Klemperer, for instance, avoided the First and Third symphonies, for reasons I never really understood. After all, the first symphony is unmistakably Mahler in every way: an utterly distinctive – and revolutionary – voice with something fascinating to say. This is not, in any sense, a prentice piece, exploring within clearly established styles, but a voice and mind bold and confident.

And any performance has to capture that confidence and shock of the new. In a crowded recorded field, a new performance has to bring something illuminating, not as an interpretation imposed on the music, but rather as a new light cast. I think that Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra succeed in this. Some listeners might prefer a performance more overtly emotional, something closer to a reading by Bruno Walter, or the ‘rustle of Spring’ of Abbado’s extraordinary recording.

Neither of these is Osmo Vänskä’s way. His musicianship is very much that of a conductor determined to let music speak for itself. As in his approach to Sibelius, nothing is sentimentalized, nothing indulged in for its own sake. Georges Simenon wrote his novels very fast before beginning careful revision. On his first editing, he would go through his text looking for every beautiful or striking sentence and deleting it. Vänskä is not so aesthetically austere, but his performances gain their power from their directness, even forthrightness.

His performances also give room to breathe without any loss of impetus. Take the final movement, Stürmisch bewegt. We can see what the virtues of Vänskä’s approach are, and what might be reservations for some listeners. The pace is more deliberate than with some rivals, but rhythmic tension never drops. A comparison on timings is sometimes rather artificial as a guide, but Vänskä’s performance is 20:57. Compare that with Abbado (20:35), Bernstein (20:09), Ádám Fischer (19:41), Boulez (19:20), and Kubelik (a near-breakneck 17:38). There are inevitably gains and losses. Kubelik’s reading best catches the Dionysian aspect of Mahler, in a performance that never loses its appeal. Vänskä, by contrast, stresses the Olympian. The controlled steadiness of the brass-heavy ending brings home very clearly – more clearly than in any other recording I have heard – the military bands that so caught the attention of the boy Mahler. The ending has its own power and consistency.

Production values are high, as always on this label. The recording has both richness and depth; the engineers capture the essence of Vänskä’s approach. Notes are informative. (BIS are also to be commended for both the content and quality of their bio-degradable packaging, which is also slimmer than the traditional jewel-case.)

If this recording does not displace Kubelik’s reading in my affections, it provides an insightful and valid alternative. I suspect I shall often return to it. It is the mark of great music to grant almost endless possibilities, and here we have the deep thoughts of a master interpreter.

Michael Wilkinson

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