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Mahler: Symphony No. 5
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Mahler: Symphony No. 5
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As a team, Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra began their collaboration with BIS in 2004, launching a Beethoven Symphony cycle that made reviewers worldwide sit up and take notice: a modern reference edition was the verdict on web site ClassicsToday.com, while Gramophone Magazine described it as a Beethoven reforged for today's world . Twelve years later saw the release of the third and final disc in the Minnesota-Vänskä cycle of Sibelius's symphonies, with individual discs receiving distinctions such as a 2014Grammy Award(for symphonies nos1 and 4), Gramophone's Editor's Choice, Choice of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and inclusion on the annual list of best classical recordings in New York Times.
The present disc launches yet another series, of even more monumental proportions, with Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, recorded by the orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in June 2016. Composed in 1902, the purely instrumental work followed upon three symphonies that had all included vocal parts. This and the opening trumpet motif, an allusion to the rhythm that begins Beethoven's Fifth have been interpreted as Mahler's return to a more conventional idea of the symphonic genre. Other features are less traditional, however a sometimes bewildering mixture of musical idioms reminds us of the melting-pot that Vienna was at the time, with allusions to Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian styles. To an unsuspecting audience, the famous Adagietto for strings and harp probably the best-known of all of Mahler's music must also have been surprising, appearing at the heart of a work which is otherwise lavishly scored and orchestrated.
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The recorded sound is the best I've heard produced from BIS, and that is saying something since they have always been one of the consistently best companies in terms of engineering. The strings have a wonderful golden glow with just the perfect amount of air around the sound. The harp in the adagietto could not have been captured better. Oh, and the basses! Wait until you hear them at the end of the adagietto.
Controversial or not, this is a disc worth hearing. Trust me on this.
Vanska starts the second movement a tad slower than usual, and with less amplitude from the brass (except the horns). As a result, it sounds softer edged than perhaps it should. But then the pay-off comes at exactly 36 seconds into the movement, where Vanska doesn't slow down in the slightest for the first subject (in minor). Many conductors begin this movement with a lot of fury and with all guns firing away, only to inevitably lose steam at the same first subject. Logic, reason and a long range plan prevail in Vanska's approach to this movement. Many would say that logic and reason have little place in the execution of a Mahler symphony, but I think it's quite necessary in the case of the fifth. Of all the Mahler symphonies, the 5th is the one that requires the most gear changes (shifts of tempo) from the conductor. It's easy to look great in one section, only to bog down in another.
Later on, after the long and soft soli passage for the cellos, Vanska turns up the heat for the back half of the movement. Yet, there's lots of clarity to rapid passages that often times sound muddy and hectic. I personally like this extra clarity, yet Vanska really drags out that dark, minor keyed dirge in the low brass that happens shortly before the first sounding of the big chorale tune in major (the dirge is at 11:40). While Vanska may not have all guns firing at all times, I think he gives this wild second movement some real shape.
In the third movement (scherzo), I like how Vanska goes slowly before the first big horn solo, but then comes blazing into the second big horn solo later on. In his approach, the horn solos themselves are the main focus of the movement, yet the coda is as fast and exciting as any other. The most controversial movement for nearly everyone who has heard this - myself included - is the famous Adagietto for strings and harp.
Vanska takes nearly 13 minutes on the Adagietto. More disturbing yet, he fails to turn up the passion or heat in the middle 'development' section. Vanska makes the Adagietto more of a far northern contemplation than a passionate 'love letter' to ones wife. It may be wrong headed, but it's actually an interesting change . . . well, to me, anyway. I have to admit that I wouldn't want to hear the Adagietto done this way every time. But this is followed by an excellent romp through the highly contrapuntal finale (with a fabulous brass chorale near the end).
In conclusion, I would say that this 5th is an interesting start to what one hopes will be an interesting and significant Mahler cycle. I view it more as an addendum to other top-draw, more traditional renditions (my personal favorite being the Karajan). Not that it matters in the slightest, but I find the cover art to be FAR better than usual for a Mahler release. The sound quality and orchestral execution are first rate.
The BIS sound is nothing short of spectacular with the most crystal clear yet powerful sonics ever given to any Mahler recording I know of. The amount of details, let alone the enormous dynamic range, I am getting from my speakers is truly impressive. For audiophiles, this should be their reference recording for now.
The closest readings that come to my mind are Yoel Levi's Atlanta Symphony account and Boulez's Vienna version but Vanska is more flexible in all aspects and neither had sonics this glorious.
I need to go back and give Vanska's first installment in his projected Mahler cycle a few more listens, but I think I am already warming up to his way with Mahler.
Two criticisms, the Adagietto is much too slow, and a bigger problem is the way the violins often tend to get drowned out. This is especially apparent in the closing pages, which is too bad because otherwise it is thrilling.