Less can sometimes be more — especially when conducting Mahler symphonies. Conductors who lay on the angst and soul-baring with a trowel are prone to overkill in this naturally high-strung, emotionally combustible music.
That is not Osmo Vänskä’s way. The opening movement of his new recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra is powerful where it needs to be, but ever mindful that even bigger convulsions are to follow.
Some arrive in the turbulent second movement. Amid the hiss and growl of Mahler’s vehement scoring for brass instruments, Vänskä again builds the structure patiently, avoiding the excitability that can make one orchestral climax sound very much like another.
Sharply etched string playing in the fugal episode distinguishes the Scherzo, where Vänskä’s subtle inflections of tempo allow plenty of nuance and timbral variety to register.
The Adagietto, probably Mahler’s best-known piece of music, receives a deeply tender reading in Vänskä’s interpretation. The finale, by contrast, is buoyantly bright-spirited, with particularly blithe woodwind contributions.
The recording is beautifully engineered by the team from Swedish company BIS, who transparently communicate the expert balancing of textures achieved in Orchestra Hall by Vänskä and the Minnesota players.
Those who like their Mahler hot and heavy may miss the constant adrenaline rush that other conductors bring to the Fifth Symphony. But Vänskä’s astute musicality and his aversion to histrionics makes for a highly satisfying listen. It also builds anticipation for future releases in the orchestra’s exciting new Mahler series.