Minnesota Mahler Fifth: Transparent But All Too Cool

Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, has embarked on a Mahler project with BIS.
(Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco, courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä. SACD BIS-2226. Total Time: 75:30.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — Last month, in a tremendous and well-deserved vote of confidence in its music director, the Minnesota Orchestra announced an extension of maestro Osmo Vänskä’s contract through the 2021-2022 season. Since coming to Minneapolis in 2003, Vänskä has built a special relationship with his musicians, which has endured through good times and bad.

This new recording, the first release in a planned Mahler cycle on the BIS label, is more evidence that conductor and orchestra were made for each other, and that there is great music being made in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Orchestra, formerly the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1903 to 1968, has an illustrious history. Its music directors have included some of the finest maestros – including Eugene Ormandy (1931-1936), Dimitri Mitropoulos (1937-1949), Antal Doráti (1949-1960), Stanisław Skrowaczewski (1960-1979), and Neville Marriner (1979-1986) – and its recordings have often been received with the highest praise. It was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra that made the first-ever recording of Mahler’s First Symphony, with Mitropoulos conducting, for Columbia Records on 78s in 1940.

The recording of the Mahler Fifth is, in a word, revelatory.  I don’t think I have ever heard a recording that manages to bring out so much detail in Mahler’s complex orchestration.

From top: Ormandy, Mitropoulos,
Doráti, Skrowaczewski, Marriner

Let me cite some examples of the clarity of which I speak. In other recordings, I had never noticed how subtly and meaningfully Mahler uses the tam-tam in the second movement. The tam-tam is a large gong with a deep but indeterminate pitch which, when struck, produces a shimmering sound – mysterious at low volume and frightening at high volume. Tchaikovsky used it both ways in masterly fashion. Struck but once – fortissimo – toward the end of his Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian), it is devastating in its effect. In his Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), it is again used only once – this time at a piano level – to introduce a mournful brass chorale, producing an unforgettable moment that only a great composer could have created.

For the most part, in the Fifth Symphony, Mahler uses the tam-tam for its softer, mysterious qualities. In most performances of the Fifth, it is either too loud or inaudible. Vänskä and his team get it just right. After rehearsal number 6 and again at number 13, Mahler uses the tam-tam as no other composer had used it before and the effect is magical. At the other end of the spectrum, at number 32 Mahler finally gives the instrument’s capacity to be overwhelming full play; its fortississimo practically obliterates everything else that is going on.

There is another passage in the second movement that can serve as an example of Mahler’s genius for using orchestral instruments in new ways – not just for a special effect, but as the ideal means for what he was trying to express. After rehearsal number 11 (below), there is a passage for the cello section accompanied only by the timpanist. As always, Mahler is very particular about what he wants here: he writes pianissimo for the cellos, adding the word klagend (like a lament), and further instructs them to play am Griffbrett (over the fingerboard), presumably so as to produce a softer, more covered sound.  Mahler wants to be sure the players not only understand just how softly he wants them to play, but also the feeling he wants them to convey. The music is sublime, and Vänskä and his fine players get right to the heart of what Mahler intended.

Throughout the performance, I was struck again and again by how well these musicians interpreted Mahler’s soft dynamics. Often the playing is so soft that one must strain to hear it, as in the opening of the Adagietto.

However, I do have some reservations about this recording. While I have nothing but enormous admiration for what Vänskä, his musiciansand his engineers have achieved in getting at what Mahler intended in the Fifth, I do wish that they had been able to give us more of Mahler’s passion, his sense of drama and his grand vision. Yes, it is important to get the details right, but one needs to get beyond the details to really capture the heart and soul of Mahler’s music.

Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra: remarkable clarity, at a price. (Greg Helgeson)

As often happens, transparency and clarity come at a price. We hear absolutely everything that is going on, but sometimes the engineers give a helping hand where none is required or welcome. There are times when a solo flute or bassoon is much louder than a solo trumpet. While it is nice to hear everything clearly, the resulting balance may be somewhat artificial.

I have a further criticism about the trumpets – not of how they are recorded, but of what Vänskä asks them to do. The Fifth Symphony is, of course, a very special piece for trumpet players. The symphony opens with a trumpet solo, and trumpets are prominent in numerous passages later in the piece. In this performance, that opening trumpet solo – a nerve-wracking moment for even the most experienced players – is played very well. Later on in the movement, Mahler writes another trumpet solo with a much different character, in which he shifts from the opening funeral march (in appropriately slow tempo), to a wild and crazy quick tempo (rehearsal number 7). In fact, his tempo marking actually includes the German word “Wild!” The solo trumpet is featured in this section with the dynamic marking fortissimo almost throughout and increasing to fortississimo later on. To my mind, this section calls for loud, demonic, nearly out-of-control trumpet playing. While Vänskä’s soloist plays this section beautifully, “beautiful” is not what is needed here.

For the record: Vänskä and BIS producer Rob Suff. (Helgeson)

Mahler’s scores abound in extroverted moments and big climaxes, but if one looks closely at his dynamic markings, the really big moments – those shattering climaxes that pin you to the back of your seat and set your hair on fire – are really very few in number and carefully calibrated. When they come, we need to know that this is it, this is the moment of truth.

There is just one such moment in the second movement just before rehearsal number 29, near the end of the movement. You can’t miss it in the score because there is a huge crescendo and a fortississimo cymbal crash, and the first two trumpets are instructed to play fortississimo schalltrichter auf (with the bells in the air). Unfortunately, in this recording, this moment barely registers. The same thing happens again near the end of the last movement (after rehearsal number 33) and this time, Mahler marks the tempo Pesante, telling the conductor to hold back in order to bring out the full effect of the climax. Once again, Vänskä doesn’t attach much significance to this moment; he seems to think that the scamper to the end that follows is more important.

Nevertheless, for someone not familiar with the piece, this CD will provide an excellent introduction. For lovers of the symphony, it will also be immensely satisfying, above all for the extraordinary clarity and transparency of both the performance and the recording. In fact, what Vänskä and his engineers have accomplished is so accurate and so clear, that it might be possible to reproduce the score in every detail on paper just by listening to the recording. Quite an achievement.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.comwww.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.

Made for each other: Osmo Vänskä and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. (Travis Anderson))