Monday, September 2, 2019

Minnesota Orchestra puts a recorded Mahler One in the top rank

By happenstance, Krista Tippett rebroadcast a conversation with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, as I was wrapping up my impressions of the Minnesota Orchestra's new recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major (BIS).

Music director Osmo Vänskä adds to a fine discography with the Minnesota Orchestra.
I heard the "On Being" interview, which I don't think I caught on its original broadcast in 2012,  Sunday morning on WFYI-FM. I had been looking for some way to capture the marvels I found in how Osmo Vänskä shaped the first movement. The performance, beautifully recorded, struck me as closer to the reality of untrammeled nature than others I could recall.

Hempton says such things as "each habitat has a characteristic sense of space" and "a quiet place is the think tank of the soul." Lots of composers, particularly in the 19th century, paid tribute to the natural world. It was so much easier to experience directly then. This accounts of

for the fog of nostalgia through which we must process such music today. We find it so much harder to be "in nature's realm," to borrow an Antonin Dvorak title.

Mahler intends not to merely salute nature in another medium, but astonishingly to set us in the deep woods via symphonic means. The low dynamic level of the opening measures and the patience with which the orchestra shapes the introductory material as well as the full orchestra glory that emerges are extraordinary.  The composer brings us into a world of near silence, yet one that seems to anticipate Hempton's assertion that "wildlife are as busy communicating as we are." Mahler stipulates that, against sustained strings, the brief figures that tune our ears to natural sounds must be "deutlich" (clear) even at pianissimo. This performance follows through on that difficult requirement.

All dynamics in the meticulous Mahler score seem to be followed.  As to pacing: where appropriate, a subtly managed rubato, in which, say, the horn is poised against strings, adds to the songfulness so characteristic of the composer. Normally, of course, rhythms are exact and steady where they need to be, as in the second-movement scherzo.

The only slightly puzzling thing about the performance is that the initial statement of the third movement's theme ("Frere Jacques" in the minor mode) seems to be played by more than a solo double bass. The isolation of that melody when first heard seems an important part of the movement's poignancy, and it's marked as a solo. Maybe something about how the muted solo comes across in this recording gives the impression that at least a couple of players are involved. A small matter, but it's a benchmark of excellence when well played by the principal, as it was many years ago when the New Yorker's Alex Ross toured the country and lavished praise for it on Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Ju-Fang Liu.

In the new recording, the storm that breaks out in the fourth movement is predictably hair-raising. The lyrical contrasts in the course of the work's longest movement are fully exploited.  Every effect is rendered with utmost patience and security by the Minnesotans. You would have to believe Mahler's triumphant mode inherently tawdry (I do not) to find the settled and honorably achieved emergence of that triumph in any sense false or forced in this performance.

There are loads of Mahler Firsts out there, but this one has a special quality from the very first, back when  Vänskä and Minnesota Orchestra initially welcome us to that "quiet place (which) is the think tank of the soul."

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