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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 10 in F-sharp major (1910)
Performing version by Deryck Cooke (1976 - 3rd Edition, 1989)
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. June 2019, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA. DSD
Reviewed as 5.0 multi-channel download, available from eclassical.com
BIS BIS-2396 SACD [78:20]

This new BIS recording of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra performing the “Cooke-3” version of the Mahler Tenth was covered by my colleague, John Quinn, in early March here on MWI – review. In general, I agree with his very favorable impression of it, but here I’ll try to cover some of its other aspects, with perhaps a slightly different emphasis. Like him, I’ve obtained all of Vänskä’s Mahler performances so far. I believe the conductor has only the Third, Eighth and Ninth remaining to be recorded in the cycle now, with performances of the Ninth scheduled for later this year, assuming those performances actually take place in our current Covid-stressed environment. So perhaps the Ninth Symphony will be the next to appear in his BIS Mahler series.

This recording of the Tenth succeeds on both the interpretive and engineering fronts, and the playing of the orchestra is outstanding for its clearly audible fervor and coloristic variety. It may be a bit surprising for listeners to realize that Vänskä has shepherded the Minnesota players for almost 20 years (having started his musical directorship in Minnesota in 2003), and the conductor/orchestra rapport seems to be revealed afresh on each new recording. This nearly 20-year period includes the bitter strike and lockout of 2012 (the longest labor dispute in U.S. orchestral history), when Vänskä resigned his position to show solidarity with the players while they were locked out.

One aspect of the playing which is becoming an almost signature characteristic of Vänskä’s recent work with the orchestra over the last few years is his penchant for the expressive use of extremely hushed pianissimos (and I mean extraordinarily hushed!), and it shows up again in several sections of this new recording. This affinity for extreme quietness in the softer sections has been much more noticeable in the conductor’s Minnesota recordings than in his earlier recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland. Some critics have called Vänskä’s employment of barely whispered dynamic levels an overused affectation, but, so far, I’ve been convinced by it.

Indeed, the dynamic range on this recording is formidable, easily capturing both ends of the dynamic spectrum, and, to my ears, the engineers have evoked a remarkably true to life quality. There are of course some listeners who are uncomfortable with the wide dynamics of BIS recordings and complain that if they have the softer sections turned up to an audible level, the louder sections will blast them out of their house, or out of their car! While I certainly sympathize with those whose home or car environment is too noisy to enjoy a full-dynamics recording like this one, I nevertheless have to applaud the achievement of the engineering staff in conveying the realistic sound range which the orchestra musicians and conductor clearly strove to create. In addition, the left-to-right spread of the orchestra is outstandingly precise and convincing, while the depth is also magnificent. Detail abounds, but never seems unnatural or pushed forward. (Remember, however, that I’m reviewing the 5.0 multichannel version of this recording, not the regular stereo version.)

By the way, I used to have the 1999 Rattle/BPO recording of this work on an EMI DVD-audio disc in my collection. I did not keep this album, not because I was dissatisfied with the performance, but because I found the recording too artificial sounding, with too much audible evidence of the use of spot microphones, whether I was listening in multichannel or regular stereo. In my view, audio engineering should be of the “art which conceals the art” variety, and, in the case of the Rattle/BPO recording, I was, alas, too aware of the art exposing the art! Which was a shame, because this recording captures what I feel is Rattle’s most successful outing in a Mahler symphony.

Moving from the sonics of the Vänskä recording to the performance itself, the overall interpretation flows naturally, with the many disparate sections still characterized well. His opening Adagio, at 26:42, is a bit slower than most other recordings of this movement, but its expressive inflections are effective (the beautiful string playing here is a big plus!), and I was never wishing that he’d just get on with it. To the contrary, I felt that the conductor was taking the right amount of time for the movement, with all its mood changes and contrasts, to produce the precise dramatic effect for each section. Similarly, in the second movement (the first scherzo), Vänskä balances the transitional intensities and “virtuoso” changes of meter and tempo with unerring control, and he produces the type of brilliance this movement needs.

I’ve always been a bit confused about the short third movement, “Purgatorio”. Its character has always seemed to me almost bucolic, and I remember being shocked when I first saw Mahler’s indications on the last page of this movement’s short score, with its indications of “Erbarmen” (“Have mercy”), “O Gott! O Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen?” (“O God! O God! Why have you forsaken me?”), and “Deine Wille geschehe!” (“Thy will be done!”). And these remarks appear in a movement which, if one added some jingle bells to the orchestration, would not be out of place in the Fourth Symphony! In any case, Vänskä returns here to a slightly slower main tempo than one hears on other recorded performances, with the emphatic accentuation of his interpretation suggesting even more kinship to the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The transition between the last two movements (second scherzo to the finale) is of course characterized by those impactful bass drum thuds, and I don’t know of another recording where they’ve been more impactful than this one! Talk about a surprise symphony! And once again, the strings (and really, the whole orchestra) manage to convey the alternate anguish and consolation of Mahler’s finale in an almost exalted way.

As for alternate recordings of the Tenth, there is the afore-mentioned Rattle/BPO recording, whose sonic signature may not bother some listeners as much as it does me (Warner 5034202 - review). I also want to put in a good word for the Seattle Symphony and Thomas Dausgaard (on that orchestra’s own label, SSM1011: Recording of the Month - review), who keeps things moving a bit more than Vänskä does, but he’s much more successful in this work than in a number of his other recent recordings, such as his Bruckner Sixth, where his relish for speed impacts his performances negatively, with lightweight articulation and insufficient depth of tone. Fortunately, such superficial triviality doesn’t occur in this Mahler performance. And finally, if stereo rather than multichannel is your preferred sonic medium, I daresay that the finest recording from a sonic point of view might be the “one-point microphone” Inbal recording with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony on the Exton label (part of their “Laboratory Gold Line” series, OVLX00089, download only), a more successful recording than Exton’s earlier “one-point microphone” recording of Inbal and the Czech Philharmonic in the Mahler First. But alas! Just as with that earlier recording, Inbal’s Tokyo Mahler Tenth is ruined by the conductor’s obsessive and all too audible crooning as he conducts – what a waste of outstanding engineering!

I do not believe in a “best” recording in most repertoire works, but, given all its merits, this new Vänskä/Minnesota issue should certainly be considered seriously as a choice in this Symphony.

Chris Salocks

Previous review: John Quinn

 

 



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