This past August, this site reported on a project of the Swedish label BIS Records to release a series of recordings of the music of Gustav Mahler performed by the Minnesota Orchestra led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä. The series began with a single-CD album of that composer’s fifth symphony, along with word that the sixth symphony had already been recorded. That second album was released today.
There are certain symphonies for which one need only give the number. Unless you are in a room full of passionate devotees of the music of Anton Bruckner, saying just “the ninth” triggers an immediate association with Ludwig van Beethoven; and the odds are with you for getting the same association when you say “the fifth.” However, “the sixth” tends more likely to be connected to Mahler than to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony (perhaps because the Beethoven symphony has that nickname).
However, while the Beethoven associations tend to be based on some impressive achievement, the Mahler association seems to have more to do with notoriety. By the time Mahler gave the first performance of this symphony in 1906, he already had a reputation for going “over the top” by augmenting his orchestral resources in order to provide “sound effects,” one of which, in this particular symphony, involved the blows of a “hammer of fate,” whose specifications were given only loosely. This resulted in the publication of a cartoon, which appeared in January of 1907:
from Wikipedia (public domain)
The caption in German (which may not be legible on the scale of this reproduction) reads, in English translation, “My God, I've forgotten the motor-horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony.” A special effect intended for the height of tragedy had become the height of ridicule.
Here in my home town of San Francisco, many of us have a memory that transcends that ridicule. In September of 2001, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) had to contend with a “hammer blow” of their own. They had been scheduled to perform the sixth only a day or so after the September 11 attacks. After considerable and thoughtful discussion involving different perspectives of SFS staff, SFS released an announcement that all of the subscription performances would go ahead as planned. MTT himself observed that he felt that this would be a case in which the music would have a useful cathartic value.
Personally, I feel that this was a good judgment call from MTT. The sixth may be Mahler’s darkest symphony (the only one to end on a minor triad); but MTT knew how to conduct it without wallowing in the darkness. Many may take a dismissive attitude toward the score, but MTT’s interpretation made it clear that this was not music to be summarily dismissed. Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, it may well have been just what the doctor ordered.
This brings us to the new Vänskä recording. Having heard him in performance as a Visiting Conductor of SFS, I am well aware of his ability to evoke intense emotional associations from his performances without ever giving any sign of wallowing in them. Similarly, there is absolutely no evidence of wallowing in this Mahler recording. Rather, there is a recognition that, however much this symphony may have been a product of personal distress, Mahler had a reason for every single mark that he committed to paper. As a conductor Vänskä made it clear that he grasped every one of those reasons and wanted to make all of them clear to the listener.
Nevertheless, my own personal reaction was that Vänskä’s attentiveness may have resulted in a reading that was a bit too clinical for its own good. There are certain compositions that take the listener to the brink of madness without going over the edge. (Franz Schubert’s D. 760 “Wanderer” fantasy in C major was responsible for my own first listening experience that put this thought in my head.) Having listening to Vänskä conduct Jean Sibelius in concert, I know he can get closer to that brink than he did in his approach to Mahler. As a result I suspect that, in the future, I shall be likely to listen to this recording for its details, rather than its expressive impact.