When Gustav Mahler died in Vienna in 1911, he left his 10th Symphony unfinished. He had completed the first movement, but the other four existed only in draft form, with most of the orchestration yet to be decided.
It was assumed for many years that the 10th would remain a tantalizing torso. But then English musicologist Deryck Cooke unveiled his own fully scored “completion” of the symphony in 1964, gradually recognized as a remarkable realization of Mahler’s intentions. The Cooke completion of the 10th is still the most popular of the half-dozen or so rival versions now vying for attention. It’s the one the Minnesota Orchestra plays this week for its 2018-19 season finale and the latest installment in its ongoing Mahler cycle with music director Osmo Vänskä.
Standards have been high throughout the series, but arguably reached a new plateau at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning.
The strangely disembodied melody that starts the symphony on violas was phrased with a calming equanimity, but it also seemed quietly purposeful in demeanor. Vänskä built the long opening paragraph of the first movement with implacable clearsightedness, gradually folding in extra layers of dynamics and underpinning the developing structure with the assurance of a seasoned architect. Dividing the violins left and right of the conductor’s podium — once the standard arrangement, now much less fashionable — helped clarify the richly woven textures and made the strings sound richer.
Vänskä’s ability to get really quiet playing from an orchestra created a sense of rapt expectancy in the spectral interlude before the huge, dissonant eruption at the movement’s center. The large brass section contributed powerfully to this moment, although it’s typical of Vänskä’s scrupulously balanced Mahler style that they didn’t obliterate the rest of the orchestra.
The mischievous rhythms of the first Scherzo were tautly harnessed, while the central “Purgatorio” movement was flecked with darting woodwind details and pungent colorations.
In the second Scherzo, both Vänskä and the orchestra toggled expertly between reminiscences of charming old-world Vienna and a much sharper, more splintered type of music belonging to the modern era.
The extraordinary segue into the finale, in which a bass drum fires off repeatedly like a cannon, can seem crudely rhetorical. But Vänskä is adept at avoiding bathos in Mahler and made the transition grippingly plausible.
The sad, consolatory flute melody that opens the finale was beautifully played by Adam Kuenzel. Oboist John Snow, trumpeter Manny Laureano and concertmaster Erin Keefe were among the other principals making eloquent solo contributions.
The intense wave of string polyphony Mahler conjures at the symphony’s conclusion was sensuously shaped by Vänskä and the players.
Is it a farewell to the world? Maybe. But death no longer has the same dominion it had in the painfully valedictory finale of the Ninth Symphony. A new, transfigured world of sound and meaning was opening at the end of Mahler’s final testament, and it was luminously realized in this exceptionally sympathetic performance.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.