This Friday the Swedish label BIS Records will release its newest collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä. The single-CD album consists entirely of Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony; and it marks the beginning of a projected Mahler series. Recording sessions took place in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall in June of 2016, and the following November saw recording sessions for the sixth symphony. The current release schedule also includes plans for the second, first, and fourth symphonies, probably in that order. This month’s release is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
I cannot avoid associating this personal recording with two significant firsts from my past. The fifth symphony marked my first real exposure to Mahler based on attentive listening. It was the result of a fortuitous accident. My mother had an uncle who was a rabid record collector. He had bought two Westminster albums of Mahler symphonies before discovering that he did not like them very much. He therefore passed the albums down to me, both of which involved Hermann Scherchen conducting the Orchestra of the Vienna Opera (“Mahler’s orchestra”). The album I listened to first had two vinyl LPs with the fifth on three of the sides and the first movement of the tenth on the remaining side. I began with the fifth, and was hooked by the fanfare that began the funeral march of the first movement.
The other first is more recent and more local. Checking my records, it would appear that the first time I wrote seriously about the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) on this site was in the spring of 2007 when Vänskä appeared as guest conductor in a program that coupled Jean Sibelius’ first symphony with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 482 piano concerto in E-flat major (with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard). Since that time I have looked forward to every visit that Vänskä has made to the SFS podium. Sadly, it seems as if he has been making fewer visits since his appointment with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Nevertheless, over the course of the visits that he did make, he covered a broad scope of repertoire. However, Mahler was not within that scope. This may have had to do with the fact that SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas was in the midst of his own Mahler project. Whether or not he had a say in whether any visitors would conduct Mahler, the fact is that I can now recall very few, if any, who did. As a result this new recording provided me with my first exposure to Vänskä’s approach to Mahler.
In retrospect I feel that I was very lucky that the fifth symphony should have been my “first contact” experience. The liner notes that Westminster provided talked about the “Chinese box” architecture. The symphony is in three large sections (which matched the three vinyl sides) with two movements each in the first and last sections and a scherzo of mammoth proportions in the middle. Furthermore, the Finale, which concludes the Rondo of the final movement (the second movement of the third section), explicitly reflects back on the conclusion of the Stürmisch bewegt movement (the second movement of the opening section). At the same time the Stürmisch bewegt movement amounts to a continuation of the opening Trauermarsch movement with new thematic content. This was delightful stuff for a kid about to begin his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a mathematics major!
Over the years I have had many occasions to listen to the symphony both in concert and on recording. I continue to be dazzled by its symmetries, and it often feels as if every listening experience turns up awareness of yet another detail. At the same time, however, it was the uncompromisingly visceral rhetoric that drew me into listening in the first place. As a result, the memorable performances tend to be those with conductors who know exactly where the most sensitive nerves are and are not afraid to stimulate them with electrifying jolts. (Indeed, I have had one or two surprises when encountering a conductor, whom I had previously through was little more than dutiful, going at those nerves with more vigor than I had anticipated!)
On this new recording it is clear that Vänskä appreciates the structural elegance of this symphony. However, I was surprised that he had not really unleashed the visceral side of things. Indeed, my surprise was all the greater by virtue of the diversity of experiences I had with encountering his approaches to Sibelius. It almost seemed as if his sense of discipline was keeping his sense of decorum in check, when the “trick” behind making Mahler work often involves crossing that line of decorum without then devolving into mere tantrum. This leaves me wondering what Vänskä has made of the sixth symphony, whose rhetoric is even darker than that of the fifth.