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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-04)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2016, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS BIS-2266 SACD [86:48]

Recently, I reviewed Osmo Vänskä’s recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and I noticed that although we had reviewed most of the previous SACD issues in the series, there was one gap in our coverage: the Sixth Symphony. Brian Wilson referenced in one of his Roundup features but we hadn’t done a full review of the disc. Quite how we missed it I don’t know but, as they say, better late than never.

When the disc arrived, the first thing that caught my attention was that somehow BIS have managed to fit a performance lasting very nearly 87 minutes onto a single SACD. That’s quite a feat. I noticed no loss of sound quality despite the very generous playing time. The other thing I noticed immediately is that Osmo Vänskä joins a growing number of conductors who follow the movement order that Mahler himself preferred when he conducted the symphony; this ordering places the slow movement second. For many years I preferred to hear the scherzo second, which a majority of conductors still do, but recently I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the arguments for playing the Andante moderato second.

I’ve now heard all the Vänskä Mahler releases to date and there are a number of consistent factors. One is the very fine playing of the Minnesota Orchestra. Another is the superb quality of the recorded sound that BIS have provided. As far as I can remember, the same team has been responsible for all the recordings: producer Robert Suff and engineer Thore Brinkmann of Take5 Music Production. They seem to have an expert ear not just for the acoustics of Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis but also for Mahler’s soundworld; this series of recordings present an abundance of inner detail – with no artificial highlighting – and an exciting big picture of the overall orchestral sound. This latest offering is no exception. I listened to this SACD using the stereo layer and I was seriously impressed by the sound, both through loudspeakers and headphones. I should add that I think Osmo Vänskä’s decision to divide his violins left and right in these symphonies is an additional asset when it comes to achieving clarity.

One more factor that seems to be emerging – though this is a more subjective matter – is Vänskä’s approach to Mahler. He seems to me to take a fairly objective stance; he is not as intense as, say, Klaus Tennstedt or Leonard Bernstein. In saying that I’m not suggesting he’s emotionally detached; his is just a different kind of Mahler interpretation.

I think that pacing is crucially important in the first movement; get it wrong and you significantly affect the character of the music and jeopardise your ability to convey its spirit. As examples, I really don’t care for the enervating trudge of Sir John Barbirolli (review) and, at the opposite extreme, Leonard Bernstein is surely too hasty in his 1967 New York performance (review); I’ve not heard his later account with the Vienna Philharmonic (review). Osmo Vänskä here adopts a robust, purposeful pace. He’s fractionally slower than Klaus Tennstedt in a live 1981 performance that I greatly admire (review) but I don’t mind that; I like Vänskä’s approach. He and his players invest the music with suitable energy and the playing is keen-edged and exhibits no little power. When the ‘Alma’ theme appears, Vänskä ensures that it is played with suitable passion. The exposition repeat is taken, as is usual. Throughout the movement I was delighted by the recording which allows you to hear so much detail. The cowbells make their first appearance at 12:40 and their sound registers in an excellent but not obtrusive fashion. That nostalgic episode involving the cowbells is taken quite expansively by Vänskä but I think he pulls it off. When the tempo picks up again (15:58) the music bursts forth energetically. The coda (from 23:11) is exultant; is this, perhaps Alma sweeping the symphony’s hero off his feet? I liked Vänskä’s traversal of this big opening movement.

The Andante moderato is equally successful. The opening pages are sweetly played, the performance relaxed and calm. Rightly, there’s more astringency when the oboe moves the music into the minor (4:42); hereabouts, the playing is more sharply profiled, though the sense of wistful nostalgia is not sacrificed. The extended climax (from 11:46) is strong and ardent, after which the movement’s tender close is poetically managed.

The Scherzo is sturdy, punchy and spiky, just as it should be. Osmo Vänskä and his players successfully convey the music’s pungent rustic ambience. The Altväterisch (“Old fashioned”) episodes are also well done. Thanks to the combined skills of the orchestra and engineers, Mahler’s often edgy scoring is vividly realised and the music has the deliberately gawky gait that it needs. There’s only a short gap between this movement and the finale; that happened also in Simon Rattle’s 2018 Berlin performance and it’s an effect that I like (review).

So, three movements successfully traversed; Can Osmo Vänskä bring off the vast finale with equal success? Sadly, this is where doubts begin to creep in and, furthermore, they arise very early on. The long introduction – 114 bars, Jeremy Barham reminds us in his notes – should be pregnant with tension. Unfortunately, though there is a degree of foreboding in this performance I have been profoundly irritated each time I’ve listened by the excessively slow pace that Vänskä adopts. Nowhere is this more of a problem that at the point where bassoons and low brass have a chorale-like passage (3:04). The passage is so slowly taken by Vänskä that it seems interminable; the music has feet of clay. By the time Vänskä arrives at the main allegro march (5:58) he has a lot of ground to make up. The 1981 Tennstedt performance, already referenced, is much better. His performance is suitably tense and sensibly paced – he reaches the start of the march at 5:04.

Interestingly, Tennstedt sets a blistering pace in the march whereas Vänskä is fast but not hectic. While I find Tennstedt tremendously exciting, I think Vänskä’s more “conventional” moderate pace allows for crisper definition. The first hammer blow in the Vänskä performance is a big moment – and the way his percussionists deliver the blow is rather better and more imposing than the LPO manage for Tennstedt. However, it’s what happens after the hammer that really counts. Tennstedt makes it the launch pad for a few minutes of musical turmoil. Vänskä, by comparison, seems fast and vigorous but nothing more than that; I get no real sense of drama and struggle from his performance. The contrast between the two readings after the second hammer blow is even more pointed. In my notes for the Vänskä performance I’ve written that the passage after that hammer blow (from 17:37) is “strongly projected”. To be honest, that’s not much to say about such a turbulent passage of music. By contrast, Tennstedt unleashes a firestorm; the music burns with intensity and is full of sturm und drang; this is Mahler conducting of a very high order indeed as he forges the music in a white-hot crucible. It’s a cathartic experience and the LPO offers edge-of-the-seat playing. When Vänskä reaches the bleak coda (29:31) the trouble is the coda doesn’t actually sound bleak; I felt I was just hearing very well controlled, quiet brass playing. With Tennstedt the coda sounds drained.

I’m sorry I can’t be more enthusiastic about Osmo Vänskä’s performance of the finale, especially when he has made a good job of the preceding three movements. Heard in isolation, it has much to commend it, not least the first-class orchestral playing. But the last movement of Mahler’s Sixth is a titanic musical struggle and in this performance it all sounds rather too easy. I’ve heard a number of other recorded performances besides the Tennstedt version that seem to me to penetrate much more deeply into this potent, disturbing symphony.

As I’ve already indicated, Vänskä and his fine orchestra are wonderfully served by BIS’s engineering. Jeremy Barham, who writes the notes for all these recordings, has delivered another excellent essay about the music.

John Quinn

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