Osmo Vänskä’s Fine Mahler Seventh

cover - BIS-2386

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 / Minnesota Orch., Osmo Vänskä, cond / Bis SACD-2386

Osmo Vänskä is a good, solid conductor whose performances follow the score and nothing but. By and large, they have no details of interpretation that really stand out to the listener; generally speaking, one cannot compared his Mahler to that of Klaus Tennstedt, Jascha Horenstein or Rafael Kubelik, thus I was curious to hear how he handled Mahler’s quirkiest score, one which many critics believe needs a spitfire interpretation in order to make its mark.

Surprisingly, he does very well indeed—in fact, better, in my view, than Simon Rattle or Claudio Abbado, whose Mahler Sevenths have drawn raves from the critics.

Perhaps this is because, although Vänskä gives you no more than what is in the score, he gives you no less either; and, unlike Rattle or Abbado, who had their own idea of how the music should go (ditto Leonard Bernstein), he doesn’t take it upon himself to distort certain phrases in a symphony that already leans towards the grotesque.

Take, for instance, the first movement, possibly the most grotesque in the entire symphony. Without over-italicizing phrases, Vänskä leaves nothing to chance. Whenever the music takes a strange turn, he is there to support that bizarre phrase and make it fit into the whole. Also, unlike some other conductors, he does not flatten out the sometimes “punchy” dramatic gestures, but allows them to make their point and then move on to the next phrase or phrases. In a sense, this reading of the Seventh Symphony is not unlike Otto Klemperer’s excellent recording of the Second, which also leaves no stone unturned yet does not exaggerate anything. The difference is that there are numerous outstanding performances of the Second which supersede Klemperer’s reading, most notably those of Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic (my favorite stereo or digital recording) and Bruno Walter’s stupendous live performance of the late 1940s with Maria Cebotari and Rosette Anday as soloists.

Moreover, Vänskä brings one feature to this performance of the Seventh that not everyone does, and that is a certain “weight” of orchestral sound. Of course, some of this is clearly the work of Bis’ engineers and the marvelous SACD sonics, although I unfortunately had to review this disc via downloads which do not really have all of the SACD coding that is put into the physical CD, but to hear what Vänskä does with the Minnesota Orchestra is mind-boggling. This orchestra plays as well as any big-name orchestra anywhere on earth today; every section is well-balanced, the orchestra is equally balanced as a whole, and there is plenty of “bite” in the strings, brass and winds to offset the heaviness of the basses and celli.

As an admirer of the great live performance of this symphony that Rafael Kubelik left us with the New York Philharmonic, I have to say that the first Nachtmusik struck me as a less detailed and energetic, but as compensation Vänskä gives us far greater unity of structure. To some extent, this is similar to the way Arturo Toscanini always conducted the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, always with energy but refusing to “whip up” certain passages (particularly the finale) in order to concentrate on bringing out the structure. He also does not lack for atmosphere (again, thanks to the sonics) in the passage with the solo French horn and the cowbells in the background.

Vänskä misses nothing in the long and often weird-sounding “Scherzo,” but here I missed some of the maniacal approach that Kubelik and even Rattle brought to it. Not a dull performance by any means, and the conductor brings out certain details in the orchestration that other miss, just not quite as exciting as I would have liked. Yet he makes up for this by conducting what is the most seductive performance I’ve ever heard of the second Nachtmusik, catching the jaunty rhythms perfectly, and the “Rondo – Finale” has all the energy you could want.

In short, a valuable addition to the Mahler catalog because it gives shape and form to a work highly admired by Schoenberg. In several respects, the way Vänskä conducts this almost makes it sound like a lyrical work sandwiched between the highly dramatic Sixth and the almost super-ecstatic Eighth which, despite its grotesque elements, is probably just what Mahler intended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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