Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
As a team, Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra began their collaboration with BIS in 2004, launching a Beethoven Symphony cycle that made reviewers worldwide sit up and take notice: a modern reference edition was the verdict on web site ClassicsToday.com, while Gramophone Magazine described it as a Beethoven reforged for today's world . Twelve years later saw the release of the third and final disc in the Minnesota-Vänskä cycle of Sibelius's symphonies, with individual discs receiving distinctions such as a 2014 Grammy Award (for symphonies Nos 1 and 4), Gramophone's Editor's Choice, Choice of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and inclusion on the annual list of best classical recordings in New York Times.
The present disc launches yet another series, of even more monumental proportions, with Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, recorded by the orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in June 2016. Composed in 1902, the purely instrumental work followed upon three symphonies that had all included vocal parts. This and the opening trumpet motif, an allusion to the rhythm that begins Beethoven's Fifth have been interpreted as Mahler's return to a more conventional idea of the symphonic genre. Other features are less traditional, however a sometimes bewildering mixture of musical idioms reminds us of the melting-pot that Vienna was at the time, with allusions to Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian styles. To an unsuspecting audience, the famous Adagietto for strings and harp probably the best-known of all of Mahler's music must also have been surprising, appearing at the heart of a work which is otherwise lavishly scored and orchestrated.
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Recorded in June 2016 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
Producer: Robert Suff
Sound engineer: Thore Brinkmann (Take5 Music Production)
Editing: Matthias Spitzbarth
Mixing: Thore Brinkmann, Robert Suff
Executive producer: Robert Suff
Equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.
Review by John Miller - July 30, 2017
Following two prize-winning symphonic sets in HIRES (Beethoven and Sibelius, the latter twice), Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä and BIS now have unerringly turned to record the symphonies of Mahler. Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra are entering a competition born from a remarkable blossoming of complete Mahler Cycles on SACDs, which began around the beginning of the century and at the time of writing is about 17 sets. While that delighted the insouciant HIRES Mahlerites, it made work for Reviewers progressively difficult.
There can be no single magic 'Performance' against which everyone could hold any recorded performance, to judge it for purchase. Also, making 'valid' comparisons of musical performances becomes less and less useful in making choices as the number of Mahler Cycles increases. And in any case, musical conclusions are completely subjective, be they from writer, performer or listener. So the question given to a music collector (or ticket to a concert), "should I buy this?"' is a difficult one to answer!
Mahler began his Fifth Symphony (1901-1902) while he was 42 in age, marking his full maturity, and starting the first of a new trilogy, numbers Five, Sixth and Seventh, all purely 'realistic' instrumental symphonies, marking his middle period. He cast away most of the textures and sonorities of the first two symphonies; and substituted the new order of naked contrapuntal textures which often contain a hard edge made by extremely stark woodwind and brass. Also from 1901-1902 Mahler courted Alma, engaged her, married her and made a baby with her. Some of the emotions from that important phase of his life surely played into his Fifth.
For me, one of the important features of this new Symphony 5 that had my interest is that Vänskä and his orchestra apply a notable clarity of structure in the five movements, within which variously distinctive motifs and textures appear from movement to movement. Secondly, Vänskä appears to be following the score very well, considering that he has not played Symphony 5 as many times as those in the collection of other conductors who are very well versed with the work of their own distinctive interpretations. The 5ths score is peppered with instructions to conductor, whole orchestra and individual instruments, and interestingly there is a mix of German and Italian instructions.
Also very useful for this reading of Fifth is Vänskä's well-known control of dynamics in performance, and there are a number of marks 'ffff' (for loud) and/or 'pppp' (for the soft) in every movement; even the gentle Adagietto goes as high as 'ff' and fades away to pppp. To be aware of these variable sounds correctly on this BIS SACD I found it necessary to turn up the volume in my Denon several notches.
Here are some comments from my listening:
1. "Funeral March" (C sharp minor). The trumpet's first notes are a travesty of the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth. Following, Mahler's request for "measured pace, tempo as though a cortege" is well brought out with a tear-led folk-like melody, particularly with the steady paces from the deep basses. Later there is a sudden rushing, raging, despairing of the whole orchestra, and the violins have an edge to their tone. Returning, the slow march is returned to, but here adding sweet consolation from the woodwind, keeping a rhythmic 3/4 march, about which Mahler gives intimate details for the strings.
2. "Stormy and agitated, with the greatest vehemence" (A min). Note for the conductor: "Violins are to be as vehement as possible". A startling entry of the basses and cellos, supported by the bassoon and bass bassoon 'fff' of a short assertion and answered by a volatile short chord punctuation from the rest of strings aided by trumpets and trombones. The shocking whirl collapses and the Funeral March returns quietly, like a wandering folk melody with jaunty intervals which gradually crescendo into the initial storm, adding other themes while doing so. The end is joyful, unexpectedly, with high strings like scurrying winds, progressing to nobility. Then the quiet march theme, almost playful here by Vänskä and his orchestra, and bird songs sound from above, become very slow and the movement is ended by two low strings plucked A and C (enhancing the mother key of this movement in a satisfying way), with an instruction to "leave a long pause following".
3. "Scherzo" (D major). In effect this is a Ländler (a folk dance in Centural Europe) and is designed to counter the two movements of the funeral march. Mahler makes it a dance of Life, played "vigorously, not too fast". Vänskä manages to insert both playful Viennese waltz and an expressive Trio section and as the dance returns, make follows Mahler's instruction "The Woodwind section should not be 'covered' by the rest of the orchestra', which produces an interesting textural difference in the repeat, and the Glockenspiel is well forward in brightening output. The brilliant finale should follow Mahler's instruction and make the orchestra to go "six times faster to end". Did it?
4. "Adagietto" (F major). The most controversial of the movements. As Mahler doesn't use a metronome, musicians must take 'slightly faster than adagio (very slow)' and choose their own interpretation. Vänskä goes for the slower option than many other recordings (12:39, Fischer 10:49). The instruments required are Harp and strings, violins having 2 parts each. The fragrant entry of the strings at first seems distant, at the back of your mind, slowly coming to your attention. Cellos and violas have smooth, rich tones, the violins lovingly delicate and transparent - but all of them can rise to 'FFF'. In most of the melody, which seems like a love song (remember his marriage to Alma when Mahler was writing Symphony 5), I felt that the music was portraying an affirmation of Life. When intense and loud, perhaps the inner-self! One of my favourite Adagiettos.
5. "Rondo-Finale" (D Major). Speaks for itself, as does Vänskä's speed, 'Allegro giocoso', and joyful the Minnesota Orchestra are. This is the composer's artistic joy in symphonic creation, hurling the music to the end, where the speed and accuracy in the last few bars is thrilling.
Minneapolis Orchestra's Hall has an interesting history; first open in 1974 as a temporary building, but a renovation and expansion project was undertaken and opened in 2013. Its acoustics are very good, but in this case, listening in 5.1, the orchestra width sounds to be only between my large speakers, whereas I prefer large orchestras to be much wider - say as one would have listen sitting in the centre of the front row. The quality of the sound (24/96 to DSD), however, is very good, obeying Vänskä's very wide dynamics, and the focus gives a good back-to front image.
While the Minneapolis Orchestra does a very good job, they cannot produce sound as subtle as those top-of-the world orchestras which have made their own Mahler Cycles. However, Minneapolis are going to have a cycle of their own which will be made with Vänskä's freshness, effective as shown in this performance of the 5th; the first two movements and the Adagietto impressed me greatly.
"Do I want to have this disc?" Yes, I bought it and it is now in the ranks of Mahler in my shelves.
academic discussion of Jeremy Barham, the booklet writer and author of 'Perspectives on Gustav Mahler'.
Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net