New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon
Monday, 23 April 2018
Mahler Symphony No. 6 Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra
Symphony No. 6
This is the second release in Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler
cycle for BIS, following a well-received Fifth Symphony last year. It’s a
crowded field, of course, but Vänskä has a distinctive take. He also has the
benefits of a world-class ensemble in the Minnesota Orchestra and exceptionally
fine audio from BIS, both key attributes for any Mahler recording. His slow
tempos won’t suit every taste though, suggesting a mixed reception.
At 86:16, this is one of the slowest versions on
record—a cursory scan through the catalog brings up Rattle’s 1991 version (EMI
54047) at exactly the same timing (though with a longer first movement and
shorter Finale), but most other versions at least five minutes shorter. (That
timing also makes this one of the longest-running discs in the catalog too.)
Mahler gives no metronome markings, but he clearly expects plenty of rubato,
and Vänskä’s phrasing never feels square. The outer movements are furthest from
the norm, but neither feels any more weighty or monumental for the slower
speeds. Instead, Vänskä uses the space to focus on the details of counterpoint
and orchestration, all of which come through with spectacular clarity. The
second subject “Alma” theme of the first movement is indicated A Tempo, but here it is significantly
faster than the main theme.
The inner movements are ordered Andante-Scherzo, which is my preference (and Mahler’s too, I’d
tentatively argue), and both are more conventional with regard to tempos,
timing in at 16:10 and 13:18 respectively. The Andante is characterized by gorgeous solos from the English and French
horns, while the Scherzo has the appropriate weight, though without Vänskä
really emphasizing the lower end of the orchestra.
The slow tempos of the Finale (31:42) rob the music of
some urgency, but allow Vänskä to make marked contrasts between the steady
primary themes and the much faster and more frenetic intervening episodes. But
even right up to the end, the basic tempo remains steady, giving a greater
sense of finality to the closing chords and percussion outbursts, even if the
line of argument that they conclude by then seems very slender indeed.
As mentioned, the Minnesota Orchestra, playing at
their best and recorded by BIS in exceptional SACD surround, makes for a
superior audio experience. On my setup, the focus of the orchestral tone is
weighted to the center channel—that’s where you’ll hear all of the percussion
and brass (even the tuba solo) and most of the woodwind. But it’s still an
immersive experience. The sheer clarity of the orchestral detail is
extraordinary: Every note of the celesta part, from example, is easily audible.
That alone ought to make this release recommendable, though listeners who like
a bit more urgency in their Mahler should probably look elsewhere.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:6.