Last summer, the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, launched their ambitious Mahler recording cycle with its version of Mahler’s popular Fifth Symphony.
Good as that album was — it earned a Grammy nomination for best orchestral performance — the orchestra’s new recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony ups the ante considerably.
The Sixth is a titanic work, placing extreme technical and emotional demands on the players. And the orchestra meets those demands, thrillingly, with this new recording.
Much of the success is due to conductor Vänskä’s outstanding qualities as a Mahler interpreter — in particular, his ability to lend coherent shape and structure to the music for 80-plus minutes.
The opening movement is measured in pace though not sluggish, implacable though not unduly aggressive. Where many conductors press the music feverishly forward, Vänskä’s relative circumspection pays rich dividends.
A certain sadness seeps through the music’s busily intertwining textures from the outset. Usually buried by faster tempos, a large amount of instrumental detail rises to the surface.
The famous cowbell episode at the movement’s center is eerily diaphanous, a dreamy vision made rapt by the players’ ability to maintain intensity at low volume, and by Vänskä’s delicate balancing of the varying instruments.
The slow movement is perfectly paced by Vänskä, who allows the music’s tenderness and vulnerability to speak naturally, without a heavy overlay of tempo manipulation. The main climax, toward the conclusion, is beautifully constructed, with a touching heartfelt quality.
A grungy Scherzo shows how acclimated the Minnesota players have become to Mahler’s vivid, expressionistic idiom. Growling cellos, wailing woodwinds and whooping brass all register pungently in this skirling, mercurial movement.
The crushing tragedy of the half-hour finale brings a heroic response from the Minnesota players, who rise magnificently to Vänskä’s precision-tooled direction and sure-footed understanding of the music’s architecture.
Recording Mahler is a risky business, with much competition. At least 60 rival recordings of the Sixth Symphony are currently available.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s performance stands with the very finest. Recorded at Orchestra Hall in November 2016 by the Swedish record company BIS, the album has power, precision and sensitivity, with none of the overheated neuroses that mar many Mahler interpretations.
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