Vänskä’s Mahler Second Leaves Dual Impression Of Restraint, Passion

Osmo Vänskä led the Seattle Symphony in a breathtaking account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. (Photos by Carlin Ma)

SEATTLE — The Seattle Symphony’s season of guest conductors concluded with a visit by Osmo Vänskä. On June 24, he led a breathtaking, meticulous performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Conventional program structure offers a chance to experience each visiting conductor’s skills with a variety of pieces and styles. But with the entire concert devoted to this single work, Vänskä took on the additional test of sustaining the musical narrative over the length of a feature film.

His Mahler credentials are of fairly recent vintage: The Finnish conductor began to record his Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2016 (on the BIS label); only two symphonies are left to be released. This time last year, Vänskä concluded his acclaimed tenure helming the Minnesotans with an account of Mahler 8. (It was the Minnesota Orchestra that made the first-ever American recording of the Second, in 1935, with Eugene Ormandy conducting — a release that required 11 78-rpm discs.)

Rather than impose an idiosyncratic vision on Mahler’s score, the 70-year-old Vänskä articulated clarity of detail, letting the composer speak for himself. This attempt to adopt an “objective” stance can entail merely arbitrary flashes of insight — a fresh polish added here and there. But Vänskä was unwavering in his attention to balance, timbral blend, dynamics, and, with especially gratifying results, the internal echoes across Mahler’s vast structure, such as the sighing, semitone pleas of the outer movements.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano performed in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony under Osmo Vänskä.

Elegantly minimalist gestures coaxed the players toward clarity. Yet as the symphony progressed, Vänskä’s repertoire of body language gradually expanded to include a slow-motion swaying to the scherzo’s flow — perhaps a bit too steady, where more elastic variance would have been welcome — and, in the cosmic drama of the finale, even some airborne exuberance.

The visual contrast between restraint and passionate involvement bespoke Vänskä’s concept of the music. In the first movement, subtle shifts in pacing kept the overall timing on the longer side, but it never seemed indulgent. The furious snarls that hurtle forward from the strings’ lower depths in the opening measures had thrilling force, but Vänskä made the first statement of the “resurrection” theme plausibly decelerate the urgency.

Mahler requests a five-minute pause after the funeral march of the first movement reaches its grim end, but Vänskä allowed less than one. Exaggeration had no place in his performance, nor did the slightest hint of the mystical. The Andante was especially well shaped: verdant, and radiant with Schubertian charm. While Vänskä steered clear of sentimentality — his use of portamento at times sounded almost weirdly clinical — there was also, in the scherzo above all, a lack of the ironic. Its flowing river of sound came across as a relatively straightforward study in shifting instrumental colors. Vänskä frequently called to mind a thoughtful painter building forms with precise brushstrokes.

Osmo Vänskä was the last guest conductor this season with the Seattle Symphony, which is in the midst of a search for a music director.

But he wasn’t averse to unleashing the shockingly shrill overtones of the despairing cry at the Scherzo’s climax, and the Judgment Day battleground of the finale seemed to set the entire concert hall atremble. The “Urlicht” movement, on the other hand, sounded a touch too prosaic, never quite imparting the sense of a pivotal point in the symphony’s architectural ascent toward hope. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with touching warmth but needed more spaciousness.

Vänskä made the finale riveting throughout. Lasting some 35 minutes, it delivered the promised payoff after so many moments of anticipation and suggestion preparing the way. The conductor controlled every layer of the soundscape, giving equal attention to the offstage brass to make it sound integral and not a mere “special effect.” Johnson Cano and soprano Mané Galoyan proved to be a beautifully matched pairing of soloists; Joseph Crnko’s preparation of the Seattle Symphony Chorale was exemplary.

Above all, Vänskä inspired the orchestra — augmented by some 39 guest musicians — to play at its peak. He opted for European seating over their usual placement, with the first and second violins facing each other and basses far to his left, which further enhanced the antiphonal clarity of Mahler’s string writing. With Jeffrey Fair as principal, the horns were especially stellar. Principal flute Jeffrey Barker invested his long solo in the finale with forlorn beauty, while David Gordon and his fellow trumpeters eloquently heralded Mahler’s vision of Paradise. 

The ensemble’s previous performance of the Mahler Second was in September 2017, near the end of the Ludovic Morlot era, but ended up being conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero as a last-minute replacement. Two guest conductors are scheduled to conduct the Mahler symphonies programmed for next season: David Robertson (Nov. 30 – Dec. 3) and Kahchun Wong (April 11-14), leading the Fifth and the Third, respectively. With the orchestra playing at this level under Vänskä, we can only wonder what heights it might reach with consistent musical leadership.