Vänskä’s Interesting Mahler First

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 / Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, cond / Bis SACD-2346

I almost passed over this for review because, to be honest, many of the Mahler symphony recordings I’ve sampled in the past few months struck me as professionally-played but emotionally “flat” readings of his music, and if there is one thing Maher should never be it is emotionally flat, but this one perked me up immediately in the first movement.

Vänskä takes an unusually playful view of the rhythms in this symphony, particularly in the first two movements, phrasing those passages in a way I’ve never quite heard before. The Minnesota Orchestra plays exceptionally well for him, too, particularly the horns which achieve a nice, rich blend and take their hands out of the horns to produce a nice, bright tone in the louder passages. (One of my banes nowadays is that most horn players, seduced by their massive-sounding instruments, tend to put their hands deep into the bells most of the time which produces a dull, muffled tone with no brass “bite” to it.) He also takes the second movement at a good, lively clip, although I thought the trio section was a mite too slow.

Vänskä also maintains his playful approach in the third movement, giving the “Frère Jacques” theme in the minor a nice tongue-in-cheek feel. Towards the end, however, he does slow down a bit more than the score indicates.

Interestingly, although Vänskä plays the last movement with plenty of power and excitement, this, too, is taken at a slightly measured pace as well as a bit stricter in rhythm than most other performances. The opening section also has a certain jauntiness beneath its explosive surface, and he seems to love that slow string theme just a bit too much though at the climaxes he has the requisite energy. He also slows down to the point of stasis in the later string-and-wind section, but the jauntiness returns for the ensuing section. The big explosion of sound, when it comes, has close to the requisite volume but again seems more happy than angst-filled.

In short, then, a very unusual and individual view of the symphony. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I found it interesting because it was different without being too precious or coy.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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