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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 7 in E minor (1904-05)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2018, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS BIS-2386 SACD [77:70]

This is the sixth instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler cycle. I think it would be fair to say that the previous releases have met with a mixed reception. Michael Wilkinson admired the First symphony (review) and was, if anything, even more taken with Vänskä’s account of the Fourth (review). Dan Morgan was not greatly enamoured of the Fifth (review), and I also had some reservations (review). We’ve not reviewed the Sixth in disc form but Brian Wilson reviewed the download, giving the interpretation a muted reception. My second encounter with the Vänskä cycle was the ‘Resurrection’ symphony and, once again, I had mixed feelings (review). At the end of my appraisal of that recording I said this: “I must say that, after hearing two instalments of his cycle, I’m still on the fence about Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler. There’s much about it that’s good – even very good – but I’m yet to be convinced that he’s as authoritative and displays the kind of natural affinity with the music in the way that I’ve come to take pretty much for granted when he turns his hand to Sibelius or Nielsen.” Will that judgement need modification after listening to this new account of the Seventh?

Though my colleagues and I have expressed differing views on the interpretative side of Vänskä’s Mahler recordings there has been complete unanimity as to the superb quality of the engineering. With that in mind, I was keen to experience this new recording of the Seventh. Over the years I’ve come to esteem this elusive symphony highly. Its thematic material is strong and Mahler explores and develops that material inventively. Above all, though, his skill as an orchestrator and as a conjuror of absorbing sounds from the orchestra reached new heights in this score. So, the Seventh would seem tailor-made for BIS engineering.

Before considering the performance, then, let me comment on the engineering. No need for beating about the bush: the sound in which BIS present this performance is superb. Indeed, I don’t believe I’ve heard this symphony better conveyed on disc. I listened to the disc in its SACD stereo format and was seriously impressed with the results that producer Robert Suff and engineer Thore Brinkmann of Take5 Music Productions have achieved. The sound has terrific presence and lots of inner detail emerges clearly but naturally. This recording lets us hear all the inventiveness of Mahler’s highly original scoring. Sonically, this release is compelling.

Almost immediately the first movement begins Mahler gives the key theme to an unusual instrument, the tenor horn. Here, it’s very prominent – perhaps a little too prominent? I listened to the same passage on the recording conducted by Markus Stenz, choosing it because it’s also a live performance on an SACD (review). There, the tenor horn is still perfectly audible but it’s rather more integrated within the orchestra and I prefer that balance. In Vänskä’s hands the opening of the symphony is strong and determined. Arguably, when the somewhat quicker march arrives (1:54) Vänskä is a little slow in picking up the pace. For a moment the music sounds sluggish but that only lasts for a few seconds. Thereafter, it seems to me that Vänskä conveys well the varying moods of the music. At about 9:50 little trumpet fanfares usher in a substantial section of slower music (to 14:18). I think there’s a case to be made that Vänskä is a touch too expansive in these pages. On the other hand, there’s no denying the splendid playing of the Minnesota Orchestra, which is marvellously captured by the engineers (note, for example, the wonderful washes of harp sound from 12:53) and, overall, I found myself persuaded. I suspect, though, that it’s Vänskä’s expansive treatment of the slower episodes in the movement that cause his performance to take 22:42 overall. In my collection, the only performance that I could locate with a comparable overall timing was Sir John Barbirolli in his 1960 live performance (review). Barbirolli takes exactly the same time as Vänskä but most other conductors take between 21:00 and 22:00. Vänskä may be on the expansive side but I found him convincing and the big final climax (21:33) is an imposing moment with the heavy brass really making their mark. It sets the seal on an impressive traversal of the movement.

In the first of the Nachtmusik movements I did wonder at first if the BIS recording was actually too good, lighting the music a bit too brightly. However, comparison with the Stenz performance showed that his recording is no less present. I rapidly came to the conclusion that even if the BIS recording is on the bright side that’s a price I’m prepared to pay in exchange for the excellence of the sound. Vänskä’s performance is packed with sharply pointed playing, which is absolutely essential in this context. At 3:38 Vänskä ensures that the suave second subject, voiced by the strings, is given plenty of lift; as a result, that material dovetails well with the martial rhythms associated with other elements of the music. The cowbells (5:33) are ideally distanced. As a general observation, Stenz is a little swifter in his performance but I like this Vänskä reading.

Vänskä leads a fleet account of the third movement. In this spooky, weird scherzo, dynamic contrasts and sharply defined rhythms are all-important and both of those requirements are amply met in this performance. Throughout the movement, melodic fragments and interjections from a wide range of instruments flash briefly into view and then recede to be supplanted by a momentary contribution from elsewhere in the orchestra. It requires great skill from both players and conductor to bring all this off successfully but Vänskä and his players are fully successful. The music always seems to me to be like the soundtrack to a vivid and rather scary dream; that impression is definitely conveyed here.

The second Nachtmusik offers a much-needed contrast with the previous movement. Here, it’s warm and relaxed, though even now Maher indulges in many piquant little interjections just to keep the listener on his/her toes. The orchestration is enhanced by the addition of guitar and mandolin; here both instruments make their mark without being thrust into the spotlight. I particularly appreciated the admirable delicacy of the playing in the last couple of minutes.

The finale has come in for quite a bit of adverse comment over the years. Indeed, even annotator Jeremy Barham, though clearly sympathetic to the music, uses the term “sustained bombast” in his description. It may not be without significance that Mahler began work on the finale at the same time as he was writing the outer movements of the Sixth symphony in the summer of 1904. Maybe he wanted some psychological relief from the emotional turbulence of that music and so expressed himself more exuberantly in what was to be the last movement of the Seventh? Maybe he simply wanted to indulge in compositional virtuosity? Whatever the motives, the resulting rondo is very much a case of Mahler letting his hair down. I like very much Jeremy Barham’s comment: “Like rapid scene changes in some imaginary carnival operatic scene without words, seemingly unfinished blocks of musical material are often juxtaposed with little logic…” Osmo Vänskä launches this festive rondo with a fusillade of timpani and brass and we’re off on an exhilarating musical celebration. I think Vänskä pulls this finale off very well and his orchestra most certainly rises to the challenge with highly committed and skilled playing. Mahler deploys all sorts of tricks to vary the presentation of the musical material and to explore his rondo theme and this performance covers all the bases. From 15:35 Mahler throws everything into the mix, clanging bells and all, to produce an exuberantly extrovert conclusion. Vänskä and his team don’t let Mahler down and I bet that in the concerts the Minneapolis audience gave the performers an ecstatic reception – the end is a crowd pleaser par excellence – though none of that intrudes onto the SACD. Mind you, it has to be said that, for all its qualities, Vänskä’s traversal of the finale doesn’t match the boisterous exuberance of Leonard Bernstein’s first recording of this work – has anyone ever matched the sheer panache and energy of Lenny in this movement? The last two or three minutes of Bernstein’s recording are a riot, gloriously over the top, as he unashamedly goes for broke – and gets there! Bernstein, though, is sui generis in this finale and I don’t think Vänskä will disappoint you.

As I’ve indicated, along the way I had a few reservations about aspects of Osmo Vänskä’s performance of the Seventh. However, I found a great deal to admire and enjoy as well. I’ve not heard all his Maher recordings to date but of those I’ve encountered I’d say this is the best and the most convincing. The playing is superb, as is the recorded sound. I believe that the Covid-19 emergency has caused some inevitable disruption to the schedule of live Mahler recordings in Minneapolis. Happily, though, prior to lockdown some more recordings were safely ‘in the can’, I think. Having enjoyed this account of the Seventh, I look forward with some interest to future instalments in the cycle.

John Quinn



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