courtesy of Naxos of America
Those who have been following this site for at least a couple of years probably know by now that, even though he has announced his retirement from the Minnesota Orchestra, Music Director Osmo Vänskä has been pursuing a major project with BIS Records to record the music of Gustav Mahler with that ensemble. To review the “state of play,” the project began with the release of a recording of the fifth symphony in C-sharp minor in August of 2017, followed by the recording of the sixth symphony in A minor in April of 2018 and that of the second (“Resurrection”) symphony this past February. This Friday will see the release of the fourth recording, devoted entirely to the first symphony in D major; and, as expected, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders. Recordings of the fourth symphony in G major, the seventh symphony in E minor, and the tenth symphony in F-sharp major have been completed; but release dates have not yet been announced. The ninth symphony in D major will be recorded in June of next year.
My memory may not be entirely sharp on this matter; but I think it is highly likely that, taking into account both concert performances and recordings, the first symphony is the Mahler composition I have listened to the most. That includes two performances by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra led by two different conductors, along with a recording made when Donato Cabrera took the ensemble to perform at the Berliner Philharmonie in July of 2012. (I have lost count of the number of San Francisco Symphony performances, most, if not all, of which were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.) For those curious about such matters, I am pretty sure that second place would go to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) collection; and any guess about third place would be a shot in the dark!
In such a context readers might expect that my reaction to this latest release of the first would be a jaded here-we-go-again impression not that different from yesterday’s approach to Jae-Hyuck Cho’s new album of the three most familiar piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yes, in the perspective of the entire Mahler canon, the first symphony is clearly a youthful endeavor; and it practical bursts at the seams with its extensive diversity of thematic sources and rhetorical stances, not to mention intense climaxes. Nevertheless, it is the broad scope of the content that lends this symphony to an equally broad scope of dispositions that the conductor may bring to his/her interpretation of the score.
The good news is that, unlike at least one conductor I have been forced to endure (name withheld out of politeness), Vänskä takes the score very seriously. However, this does not entail sacrificing rhetoric for the sake of “fidelity to the text.” Rather, that fidelity provides the foundation upon which Vänskä develops his own rhetorical perspective, which is compelling enough to sustain the attention of the serious listener from the very first to the very last measure.
Regular readers probably know by now my opinion that every large-scale Mahler composition needs to be “parsed” as a landscape of climaxes requiring the conductor, as Pierre Boulez put it, “to sort out the [highest] climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.” When that serious listener encounters Vänskä’s rhetorical strategies, particularly in the first and fourth movements (both significantly longer than the other two), (s)he is unlikely to have much difficulty recognizing those moments that rise above “the lesser peaks.” This is not to suggest that Vänskä’s perspective is “better” (whatever that might mean) than that of other conductors (past, as well as present). Rather, it is just a matter of recognizing that Vänskä has his own clearly-defined impressions of the overall landscape; and, through his conducting technique, he conveys those impressions to the attentive listener.
Will this new release bump any of my past favorite recordings off of my list of preferences? I doubt it. To the contrary, I enjoy the diversity of readings that can be brought to this score to the extent that I pretty much revel them. From that point of view, I am more than delighted to bring Vänskä’s interpretation “into the fold” and seriously doubt that this new addition to my collection will get lost in the shuffle!