Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
For the latest instalment in their Mahler series, the Minnesota Orchestra under the direction of Osmo Vänskä presents what many consider to be the pinnacle of the Austrian composer’s entire work, the Ninth Symphony, his last completed symphony.
After a vast and emotionally intense first movement that shows an astonishing fluidity of form, theme, texture and tonality, ‘the most glorious thing Mahler has written’ according to Alban Berg, the second movement brings joy and playfulness and seems to evoke both an urban Straussian world and folk music cultures. To the bitter irony and anger of the third movement the last movement, a mystical Adagio, seems to respond with ineffable tenderness. Often regarded as the composer’s monumental – both in terms of scale and emotional scope – leave-taking of the world, the Ninth Symphony can also be understood as a requiem for his daughter who died a few years before, an acknowledgment of the transience of life, a memorial to Vienna, an evocation of fading Austrian and Bohemian landscapes, a homage to a vanishing European cultural world.
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Review by Graham Williams - May 21, 2023
The performance on this superbly engineered SACD is the latest release in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Mahler Recording Project that began in 2017 with the aim to record all ten Mahler symphonies with their former Music Director Osmo Vänskä. With Symphonies 3 and 8 still to be released this is the last purely instrumental work in the series and arguably the most challenging for any interpreter.
In his thoughtful and scholarly liner notes Jeremy Barham posits that though the generally accepted view of the symphony as simply the composer’s ‘farewell to life’ has some credence, much more is represented in the course of its four movements than simply a musical manifestation of loss or grief. Much of Vänskä’s account of the score would seem to chime with Barham’s view. The conductor’s avoidance of overwrought emotion, sometimes verging on hysteria, found in some versions on disc will be welcomed by many while others may feel short changed by the relative austerity of this performance.
From the opening bars, with strings, horns and harp in perfect perspective, it is clear that precision and clarity are to be the cornerstones of Vänskä’s interpretation; the antiphonal placing of the violins being one essential part of the latter.
The ‘Andante comodo’ (27’57) flows with an inexorable purpose with the conductor building the climaxes with considerable intensity while allowing the marvellous Minnesota players appropriate flexibility in the many chamber-music like sections in this movement. Thanks to Vänskä’s keen rhythmic sense and iron control the second movement (16’35) is most successful, with incisive orchestral playing and the conductor’s firm grip of the movement’s structure. The irony in the music is never overplayed nor is its often grotesque humour.
The energy and defiance that Mahler asks for in the Rondo-burleske (12’25) certainly tests the orchestra’s virtuosity to the limit yet they meet its challenges with flying colours. The crispness and accuracy of the playing in the faster passages is astonishing while in the trio section marked ‘Etwas gehalten. Mit grosser Empfindung’ [Held back a little. With great feeling] the dreamy trumpet tune is performed with heartbreaking poignancy.
In the Finale (23’39) the conductor’s relative objectivity, evinced throughout the symphony, pays dividends. Any sense of maudlin or sickly sentimentality is absent, and the stoicism of his account brings to mind Otto Klemperer’s memorable description of the music as ‘imbued with the majesty of death’. The richness of the Minnesota strings and superb horns are cathartic in the main body of the ‘Adagio’ and, as one might expect from Vänskä, breathtaking pianissimos hold one spellbound in the fragmentary final pages of the work.
With a cornucopia of fine recordings of Mahler’s 9th Symphony available in all formats, collectors have enviable choices to make, but those who seek a state-of-the art recording and are in tune with the style of Vänskä’s compelling interpretations need not hesitate.
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