Osmo Vänskä''s Mahler cycle with Minnesota Orchestra scales a new summit in Ninth

Osmo Vänskä points the way toward 21st-century Mahler.

An impressive 2020 release of the full Tenth Symphony, completed by Deryck Cooke from Mahler's manuscripts, built up big expectations for Osmo Vänskä's Ninth with the Minnesota Orchestra. The recent issue of Mahler's last symphony to be solely his work fulfills those expectations in music inevitably interpreted as a premonition of death.

Not intended as a goodbye to life, despite Mahler's knowledge of his doubtful health in middle age, the Ninth quickly took on posthumous stature. That there is substantial work in his own hand on a No. 10 indicates that the composer was not bound by a superstitious fear of going beyond Beethoven's venerated nine symphonies. 

This recording (BIS-2476) will attract extra interest among music-lovers who believe that only the first movement of the Tenth should remain in the repertoire as Mahler's final symphonic statement. There's a genuine farewell aura to this release, in any case. On the Swedish label BIS, the Finnish conductor made distinguished contributions to the Sibelius discography; after 19 years as Minnesota Orchestra's music director, he retired in 2022, and is now conductor laureate.

The new recording stands tall among Ninths available. It has the romantic sweep and feeling of inevitability that Bruno Walter brought to a work whose premiere he conducted. It has the analytical thoroughness you can hear in the recording Pierre Boulez made with the Chicago Symphony. Interpretively, it makes a statement all its own somewhere in between.

The most telling excellence about it is the second movement, which draws upon the soil of Mahler's youth and the rustic waltz form Ländler. Mahler's wealth of specific directions in German always piques curiosity as to how genuinely they will be interpreted. At the head of the second movement there is "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb." "Täppisch" in my Langenscheidt's dictionary suggests "awkward" and "clumsy" as near equivalents. "Derb" covers quite a range, including compact, firm, solid, robust, sturdy, severe, coarse, rough, and blunt. So the movement should be played somewhat awkward or clumsy and very all those other things.

Vänskä and the Minnesotans cover them all, to my ears. That doesn't mean the playing is in any sense ragged; this is a most precise, considered clumsiness and coarseness. It very much represents the Mahlerian mastery of his material, the variety of orchestral voices he dresses it in, and the vast emotional spectrum he illuminates. 

I would also like to highlight this recording's sensitivity to the world of expressiveness with which Mahler treats the basic theme in the first movement. The eruptions of disturbance that come up are paradoxically smooth and enunciated handsomely. When it is time for those to subside, they do so naturally.

To pass on to the sublime finale, Vänskä guides the orchestra with a well-honed patience and proper indulgence in a reduction of forcefulness that no one but Mahler could have designed so effectively . Even listeners who get restless with Mahler's mood swings are likely to sink agreeably into the protracted settling down of all matters here. Somehow, you don't want it to be over, even though the music seems to enchantingly whisper to you, "It's over, it's over...it's over." You're ready for it, and yet you're not ready. This recording carries you with that feeling right through the last note.


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