For too many conductors, Mahler’s symphonies have become an excuse for self-indulgence, a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you can slug it out emotionally with the best of them. The music to some extent invites this. Bristling with yearning and neurosis, it can easily be wallowed in, and seem narcissistic.
On Friday evening at Orchestra Hall, though, Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä gave an object lesson in how to do Mahler without the histrionics, in a performance that was satisfyingly cathartic, even cleansing in its impact.
There was no posing or amateur dramatics in Vänskä’s conducting of the composer’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor: instead an intense focus on getting the detail of the music right, and a confidence that it speaks powerfully for itself if accurately presented.
The work done on detail in rehearsals was bracingly evident in the opening movement, where Vänskä’s tempo perfectly matched Mahler’s requirement that the grim march rhythm move forward “energetically, but not too much.”
Cellos, bitingly led by Anthony Ross, chugged and fulminated. And when the soaring “Alma” theme (describing Mahler’s love for this wife) arrived, Vänskä and the players slipped into it with a delicious rubato, releasing the pent-up energies of the opening section.
Changes to the normal seating plan on the Orchestra Hall platform underpinned Vänskä’s clear concern to sift and clarify as many of Mahler’s teemingly layered textures as possible.
Double basses were stage right, separating them from the phalanx of heavy brass instruments which would normally have been behind them. Horns were decoupled from their relatives in the lower brass department, and strings deployed more spatially than usual.
Transparency was the outcome, the Mahler orchestra suddenly seeming an airier, less suffocating environment. Xylophone and cowbells plinked through limpidly in dreamier moments, and the interplay of string motifs at times had a chamber-like delicacy.
Vänskä wisely kept the slow movement flowing purposefully forward, with sweetly winsome phrasing. Tension ramped up palpably in the Scherzo, where whiplash string attacks and spitting pizzicatos highlighted the expressionistic tactics used by Mahler in this increasingly agitated movement.
The finale, all 30 minutes of it, brought occasional signs of tiredness in the players. The opening stanza sagged a little rhythmically, and the baleful brass chorale in the coda had a slithery, uncertain quality to it.
No holds were barred, though, in the brutal hammer blows that finally floored the music’s repeated attempts at optimism, and Vänskä’s players nailed the final, devastating tutti chord with chilling precision.
The evening had opened with a new work by the Swiss composer Claudio Puntin. “Aroma” imaginatively combined the sounds of an electronically processed clarinet with those of the orchestra, producing a squawky, at times ethereal set of listening experiences.
Inevitably “Aroma” was overshadowed somewhat by the Mahler symphony, which the orchestra will now record for the BIS record label.
Vänskä’s remarkably unsentimental, scrupulously musical interpretation of the Sixth, powerfully executed by the players, should stand out even in an overcrowded CD marketplace. It could be a recording for the ages.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.