You could say that Gustav Mahler poured so much of his heart into his 10th Symphony that it killed him.
The composer was confronting his wife's budding romance with an architect and his own heart disease diagnosis, while grieving the death of his 3-year-old daughter. The mortality of his marriage loomed large in his consciousness when he wrapped up his Ninth Symphony and quickly started work on the 10th.
How far he got before succumbing to his illness remained a controversy for decades. Mahler died in 1911, but it wasn't until the 1950s that it became clear that what his widow originally characterized as a collection of incomplete sketches was much closer to a finished work. It just needed an orchestrator to decipher the composer's wishes and make sure it sounded like Mahler.
English musicologist Deryck Cooke is considered the most successful. It is his final revision, in 1989, that Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra have chosen for their cycle of the complete Mahler symphonies. Recorded in June 2019 at Orchestra Hall, it's been released on BIS, the Swedish label that expertly recorded the orchestra's complete symphonies of Beethoven and Jean Sibelius.
Their Mahler 10th is as stirring an aural journey as any of the releases from these cycles, a deeply involving 78 minutes of music that takes us deep into the composer's troubled heart.
Give yourself up to its soundscape full of grief, uncertainty, anxiety, pain and, ultimately, deep, conflicted love, and it could plumb much of what you've suppressed during the pandemic. It might ultimately feel as if you've cleansed a wound and are ready to let healing begin. Vänskä and the orchestra sound as if doing the same for Mahler's restless ghost, giving eloquent voice to his emotionally exhausting epitaph.
The commitment this symphony asks of you is immediate: The opening Adagio is over 26 minutes long, and Vänskä and company make it an absorbing listen that begins in yearning whispers and grows increasingly conflicted. The orchestra expertly evokes sadness, anguish exploding in a jarring, high-pitched dissonance before you're guided to a tender landing place.
That movement is one of two that Mahler finished before his death, the other being its "Purgatorio" centerpiece. Vänskä and the orchestra bring out a sauntering habanera-like quality in that, with come-hither trills and warbles on each accented footfall of its seductive dance.
This symphony has two Scherzo movements. There's a disarming jollity to Vänskä's interpretation of the second movement, its rapidly changing rhythmic structure displaying an admirable cohesiveness. The fourth movement becomes a sparse salon of soloists exchanging lines with one another. Michael Gast and the French horns are entrusted with bringing back the buoyancy, and they briefly succeed.
But expressions of pain are never far away in Mahler. Even when the orchestra's outstanding woodwinds seem to reach out to one another to provide salve in the finale — most notably in Adam Kuenzel's lovely, increasingly confident flute solo — shocking shots of percussion bring silence before the commiserating spirits start crawling out of hiding again.
The way Vänskä presents a lone trumpet's defiant stand against an attacking orchestra is intensely gripping. And the final section of the symphony sounds like a sad pledge of love and perhaps an acceptance of impending death, settling into an unconflicted quiet at last.
There are three more Mahler symphonies left for the orchestra to record — the Third, Eighth and Ninth — before Vänskä completes his tenure as music director next year. If they reach the powerful peaks found on this recording, his 19 years here will have reached a breathtaking climax.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
By: The Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Osmo Vänskä.
Where: $22 at minnesota orchestra.org.