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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Mahler, Symphony 9, Vänskä/Minnesota Orchestra

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Music Review Mahler Symphony 9 / Osmo Vänskä / Minnesota Orchestra / BIS

This is indeed an exceptional rendition of Mahler’s 9th, distinguished, in large part, by the clear and transparent textures that Vänskä employs, and further illuminated by the golden-hued, almost autumnal tones of the Minnesota Orchestra.

This clarity is most vividly demonstrated in the opening movement. Here, the famed syncopated rhythm is crisp and the multi-layered string articulations are perfectly audible, complemented by some remarkable antiphonal separation. And while precision and transparency are often mistaken for an absence of emotion, such an argument doesn’t hold for this performance. The emotional thrust inherent in this 9th is more than evident. But we warned: don’t expect the white-hot intensity of, say, Bernstein (notably his Berlin version, despite the missing brass in the finale).

It is my view, and many would disagree, that this is a work that, even if played verbatim, it’s power to move remains undiminished. My only criticism with the first movement here, as with many other recordings of Mahler’s 9th, has to do with the climax, which doesn’t carry the intended impact (perhaps the inaudible tam-tam is a contributing factor).

Apart from that, the inner movements serve as the highlight of this release. In fact, the Ländler second movement is arguably one of the finest I’ve encountered on record (it reminded me of the equally impressive results the conductor achieved with the same orchestra in his recording of the Resurrection symphony). The Minnesota Orchestra’s rendition is highly expressive – everything from the shaping of the music to its dance-like qualities is perfectly captured on both technical and emotional levels. The same can be said of the Scherzo, although some might argue that the frenzied final minutes could have been imbued with more character (Rattle’s recent recording with the Bavarian RSO is a exemplary in this respect). Nonetheless, this Scherzo is remarkable for its frenetic tempi and virtuosic orchestral execution.

At 24 minutes, the finale might be considered brisk, especially if you’re accustomed to the more measured interpretations of Karajan, Bernstein, or the esteemed Chailly (Abbado’s masterful BPO recording is nearly 2 minutes longer). But does a slower tempo necessarily denote more emotional engagement? I think not. And is a brisk finale my personal preference? That’s a difficult question. Having grown up with Karajan’s legendary live recording, which is string-heavy, brass-heavy yet manages to propel the music forward, Vänskä’s interpretation does feel considerably lighter and nimble. However, it also offers a fresh perspective.

Indeed, this is the sort of interpretation I envision myself returning to frequently when I desire emotional resonance without a deluge of sentimentality. In the finale, Vänskä achieves a harmonious balance by delivering a performance that respects both the score and the beauty of the soundscape, while avoiding excessive sentimentality. My only reservation is with the climax again, which lacks the necessary gravitas. Despite this, the performance of this painfully beautiful movement aligns well with the conductor’s overarching vision for the entire work and the closing bars here are indeed magical. Vänskä’s attention to the bigger picture is evident. There are moments of exquisite beauty from the Minnesota Orchestra, especially in the quieter segments. Not to mention the melancholy hues produced by the Minnesota woodwinds.

In conclusion, this is a noteworthy new addition to the Mahler 9th canon, featuring some distinguished playing from the orchestra and breathtaking instrumental virtuosity in the inner movements. Strongly recommended.

TL;DR

On a High Note

  • Exceptional clarity and transparent textures in Vänskä’s conducting.
  • Lustrous sonorities of the Minnesota Orchestra.
  • Highly expressive execution in the Ländler and Scherzo movements.
  • Perfect balance between technical precision and emotional depth.
  • Offers a fresh, lighter, and nimble interpretation of Mahler’s 9th.
  • Features distinguished orchestral playing and breathtaking instrumental virtuosity.
  • The quiet segments showcase moments of exquisite beauty.
  • The melancholy hues produced by the Minnesota winds are particularly memorable.

Verdict:

A fresh take on one of the most emotional symphonies. Virtuosic, characterful, and excellent overall.

Room for Variation

  • The climactic passages in the opening movement and the finale lack the dramatic impact found in other performances, but one could argue this is intentional and aligns with the overall concept of this performance.

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