There has to be a reason for a new Mahler cycle, when so many exceptional recordings have appeared in recent years. This ongoing series of the symphonies from Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra is certainly distinctive.
With around half of the symphonies now recorded, the Minnesota cycle might be viewed as a corrective to some of the extremes that have gone before. Conductors who have been tempted to use Mahler to simply show off their orchestra’s virtuosity or play bigger and louder than before get their rebuke here.
As we know from his renowned performances of Sibelius, Vänskä likes to keep a keen grip on precision and detail. The sound of his Minnesota Orchestra, recorded here with pristine clarity, is slim and lightweight, not at all a post-Wagnerian colossus. Mahler’s complex orchestral writing is sifted for each grain of import. Unexpected and revealing sounds glint through, thanks to Vänskä’s skill in balancing the instruments.
Against that, the symphony does not feel at all elemental. In various programmatic descriptions, later discarded, Mahler suggested that the Symphony No. 1 represents the spiritual struggle of a hero, but there is little on a heroic scale here. The slow movement is wistful, rather than flecked with the macabre colours found by a Bernstein or Solti. The finale is less a journey out of hell than a carefully controlled exposition of musical logic, at least until Vänskä whips up the excitement at the end.
Those who favour clear-headed understatement in this symphony will enjoy what they hear, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the soul of Mahler lies elsewhere.
‘Mahler: Symphony No. 1’ is released by BIS
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