A New Mahler Cycle from Vänskä and Minneapolis

Conductor Osmo Vänskä, whose Minnesota Orchestra has previously distinguished itself in multiple recordings of Sibelius and Beethoven, is now turning to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Newly arrived is his hybrid SACD, for BIS, of Mahler's Symphony 5. The first issue in a projected series that will next offer Mahler's Sixth and Second Symphonies at dates unspecified, it may not win over those whose allegiance adamantly rests with Bernstein, Chailly, Rattle, Abbado, Tilson-Thomas, Fischer, and/or other distinguished Mahler interpreters. Nonetheless, the strength of the recording's first movement alone, and its hi-rez provenance as DSD derived from 24/96 file, make its epic journey from darkness to light essential listening.

Let's take that first movement, whose hi-rez layer delivers, on my reference system, the weightiest and most emphatic "Trauermarsch" (funeral march) I've ever heard from a Mahler Five. Minneapolis' percussion and double basses drive home the gravity of the movement's opening as few recordings can, while the higher pitched horns sound uncannily natural. If the dirge-like nature of Vänskä's opening does not touch you, you are most likely not a Mahler fan.

As the symphony's extended first part unfolds, the clarity and weight of instrumental lines is most impressive. Mahler stipulates "Mit grosster Vehemenz" (With great vehemence) for the movement's latter half, and there's no question that Vänskä is committed to whipping up the orchestra into a storm-like frenzy. The results are thrilling, with excellent percussive impact and triumphant brass contributing to a convincing close.

Nonetheless, other hi-rez recordings, namely those from Fischer and MTT, deliver brighter, more colorful sound and an even wider soundstage. (I have not heard the 17 other hi-rez versions.) How much the sonic differences between recordings have to do with the sound of the orchestra under Vänskä, or with the hall itself as opposed to the recording equipment and choices of sound engineer Thore Brinkmann of Take5 Music Production, I do not know. Certainly. the Minnesota Orchestra recordings from Eiji Oue that were issued on Reference Recordings abound in color, and sound very different than this one.

The almost 18-minute scherzo is wonderfully executed. Beginning with a lilting waltz, this extended movement serves as a bridge between the pessimism of the symphony's opening and the waves of consolation and exultation that bring it to a triumphant close.

The memorable, frequently heard Adagietto, taken at a considerably slower pace than on either Bernstein's first rendition with the New York Philharmonic or MTT's DSD landmark with the San Francisco Symphony, is quite wonderful. The final movement, which lasts virtually as long as MTT's and considerably longer the Bernstein's first take, is thrilling, but the final bars lack the punch that Bernstein delivers on both his commercial recordings. Mahler really challenges his orchestra to slow down and then, in just a few bars, quickly switch gears to drive it home. As a New Yorker accustomed to slamming on the brakes and then gunning it for all its worth, Bernstein knows just how to deliver the goods.

As great a piece of music as Mahler 5 may be, it would take a lot of Geritol and promise of a huge paycheck to give me the strength and motivation to listen all the way through multiple complete recordings of what, under Vänskä's hand, amounts to a 74'57 emotional tour-de-force. Spot checks, however, suggest that while Fischer's version is far more colorful, brightly illuminated, and detailed than Vänskä's, it is neither as poetic nor as strong in the bass department.

Not all of MTT's hybrid SACDs fulfill their promise, but the bass and air on No.5 are excellent. I found myself especially drawn to the lovely, clear waltz at the scherzo's opening, and the contrasts between its dynamism and winning stillness. The gorgeous strings in his adagietto can also hold their own next to Vienna's. MTT is very keen on rhythmic acuity—all his spotlighted detail may be too much for some Mahler lovers, and can get under your skin at times—but he provides a glorious close to a journey that begins mournfully and ends in triumph. Mahler 5 is a great piece of music, which, when listened to in its entirety, makes its great Adagietto sound all the more like the inspired masterpiece that it is.

Which leads to the question, shall I take the plunge? For the opening movement in its entirety, and the beauty that unfolds when Vänskä takes the adagietto slowly, absolutely. If you find the rest of his movements as persuasive, please let us know in the comments section below.

Axiom05's picture

Interesting, this does not appear on the BIS web site yet. I will keep an eye out for it, thanks for the review. Hopefully BIS will offer it as part of their new release discount program.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Amazon said it would have it earlier, but the official release date may be July 10. There are sometimes different release dates in the U.S. and Europe. etc. I also expect that it will be available for download at eclassical.com.

bissie's picture

Transferred to next post.

Robert (von Bahr, CEO, BIS and eClasscial)

Axiom05's picture

Thanks, Jason. I checked status at both eClassical.com & the BIS web site, the recording does not appear at either. Presto Classical does have it listed on their site with a release date of July 28 (US?) for the physical disc. However, Presto does have the 24/96 flac available for download now. I suspect that the download will show up at eClassical very soon, perhaps this week or next. As is customary at eClassical, it should be available initially at a discount for the 24/96 file (24/96 for same price at 16/44). Keep those record reviews coming, Jason, they are very much appreciated.

bissie's picture

Not to worry, all fans.

This SACD will be available with all the initial discounts on eClassical.com as of latest July 25.

Happy listening

Robert (von Bahr, CEO, BIS and eClasscial)

Anon2's picture

I'll vouch sight unseen--or, more precisely, sound unheard--for anything that comes from the Minnesota Orchestra.

This orchestra has been an underground champion of orchestral recordings in the United States for decades. It is also about the only US orchestra that is doing complete cycles of the orchestral repertoire today. It is also among the few orchestras--especially in the US--that is doing full cycles with a venerable name in the recording industry like BIS. Most US orchestras, except for a smattering of Decca recordings in Cleveland, are doing--with mixed results--their "roll-your-own," in-house recordings.

It's an exciting development that we might have the first full Mahler cycle coming for Minnesota. I have the award-winning Sibelius cycle from this Orchestra. It is every bit worthy of the accolades. I don't know if we've had a full Mahler cycle in the US since the CSO/Georg Solti days. It's exciting to think that Minnesota may be in the works of creating a cycle, for the first time in 30 years, that may end up being on a par of the great Decca cycle from Chicago.

This new cycle adds to a widely varied legacy of conductors and record labels. Excellence has been the one constant through it all. Without making specific efforts to buy recordings from this ensemble, focusing on highly regarded recordings, I am probably not the only person to see the growing number and share of Minnesota Orchestra recordings accumulate in the CD racks at home over the years.

Vanska's legacy with BIS adds to those of Eiji Oue and Reference Recordings, Edo de Waart and Telarc, Stanisław Skrowaczewski and those amazing folding cardboard case Vox Primas, and the timeless Antal Dorati Mercury Living Presence recordings.

It's a coincidence that this review comes out in Stereophile. Just last week, after listening to the 1977 Stravinsky Petroushka recording, again in one of those folding Vox cardboard sleeves, I was recalling reviews that this publication did (to the best of my recollection) of the Ravel recordings from 1974. Then again, considering how the Minnesota Orchestra just keeps rising to the top of mind in its understated way, perhaps it was not a coincidence.

I am just glad that this tremendous ensemble and its formidable legacy survived a near-death strike and lockout three years ago. It's a fitting end to the long story that the strike ended and the orchestra moved into its renovated hall.

A 2009 work trip took me to Minneapolis. The Minnesota Orchestra happened to be playing the second night I was in town; Vanska was at the podium. After a walk through Minneapolis' famous "Skywalk" from my hotel, I had the privilege of hearing this amazing orchestra. This is a timely review of a new chapter in the long and venerable existence of this ensemble. Many thanks for the review. It brings back memories for many of us no doubt.

If someone wants to make a purchase, one might do what I have done. I bought the full Sibelius cycle, for a slight premium out of my wallet, directly from the Minnesota Orchestra store online.

Anon2's picture

I stand corrected. MTT and the SFSO did complete a Mahler cycle on their own label. The recordings have been well-regarded. Sadly, this Mahler cycle has a very San Franciscan shortcoming that I recalled about the individual recordings: it's still about $165.00 for the complete cycle, even used.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

may be because this hybrid SACD cycle is native DSD, not 24/96 converted to DSD. You can download it in its native DSD format from downloadsnow.net. All the sites listed at findhdmusic.com only offer 24/96.

johnnythunder's picture

Can't wait to hear this new recording. Vänskä is never boring. My absolute benchmark for this piece is the Bernstein/Vienna DG recording. It's definitely hyper-dramatic in places but so so beautifully played that certain sections bring me to tears.

Anon2's picture

I am a fan of the Bernstein cycle on DG. The 5th is a high point of this cycle.

Here are some other Mahler 5th recommendations:

Chailly - Royal Concertgebouw, Decca
Boulez - Vienna Philharmonic, DG
Christoph von Dohnányi- Cleveland, Decca (Penguin Classics collection)
Solti - CSO, Decca
Claudio Abbado - CSO, DG
Claudio Abbado - BPO, DG

And for those of us CD "dead-enders" out there, the Minnesota Orchestra/Vanska recording under review is available for pre-order as an SACD on Amazon and Arkiv Music for $19.99 (as of 8/4/2017).

volvic's picture

My top in no particular order; Tennstedt, Walter, Barbirolli and Haitink. I do like the Bernstein DG version he did in the late 80's. Special mention to Karajan's recording - a beautiful Adagietto. Not sure why Haitink doesn't get mentioned more often his Mahler cycle is one of the best in my modest opinion. Would love to find a clean copy of the Barbirolli on vinyl.

Anon2's picture

According to the 2000 Penguin Guide to CDs, the best edition of this book, the Barbirolli recording garners the "Rosette"/3-star designation. This might be an LP that LP fans out there might want to bother looking to acquire. Tennstedt's set is a Mahler cycle that got consistently high ratings, but little of the spotlight. It might be the least expensive Mahler cycle to be had new on re-issue. These are good suggestions.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

1. The Penguin Guide is 17 years old. So many newer versions of Mahler symphonies did not appear until after 2000.
2. The authors tended to favor English conductors
3. As the authors aged, they never went back to listen to the whole batch of recordings they started with and revise their ratings. Instead, they simply added new recordings. By the last year, the whole rating system got ridiculous.

I am not saying the Tennstedt's set is not good. But there are so many newer versions to consider. In addition, if you're into digital, in 2000, some transfers to CD were still sketchy in sound quality.

Anon2's picture

Thank you for your thoughts. If there is a better and more comprehensive compendium of classical recordings for 2009 (the year of the last Penguin Guide)and before, I'd like to know what it is.

Gramophone had a try at doing their review of classical recordings. 5-10 minutes of comparing it to the Penguin Guide, back in the day at Borders', demonstrated that the Gramophone Guide was the inferior one.

NPR had an even more feeble attempt at making their own compendium. That one even short of the Gramophone book.

Classicstoday is trying to pull a rather contrived "Amazon Prime" on us with their site. Who's going to pay the $40 some/ year that they want?

The only repository I've seen that is making a fledgling attempt online to make a start--and a very incomplete one at that--at a compendium of reviews of classical music recordings is Allmusic. Even they are trying this trick of starting to be a "fee-based" internet service. They, and Classicstoday, should learn from the Wall Street Journal; people will tire quickly at the proliferation of fees for this or that web "service."

Yes we end where started; the 2000-2009 Penguin Guides that I have--supplemented by the occasional and excellent reviews like yours--are pretty much it if you want reviews of older and new classical recordings.

And since used CDs are pennies on the dollar today, I am sticking with that one as long as CD players are around.

I did not find that the Penguin Guide necessarily favored English/British composers. I used this guide to buy some of the greatest renderings of 1980/1990s recordings by Rachmaninov, Chopin, Sibelius, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and yes Mahler. This book also had a very respectable collection of early baroque and even ancient music.

Yes, the Penguin Guide was the worst compendium of classical records, except for all the rest.

And to share the enduring relevance of the 2000 Penguin Guide I just used to make two great acquisitions using this very reference: Mahler 9th/Karajan/BPO/B000001GK9 for $6.87 used in good condition; Mahler 9th/Bernstein/BPO/DG/B000001GFX for $1.00 (yes, $1.00) in flawless condition. I listened to the first movement of the Bernstein Mahler 9th in my car on the way to work this morning.

I say I made out pretty good with my Penguin Guide, wouldn't you?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

One of our three dogs, Leo Gleesun, has taken to a particular stuffed pillow on the living room couch. He has now begun to chew off the corners of the pillow and pull out the stuffing. We put the stuffing back in, and he pulls it out again. He rolls up and sleeps on this pillow, has mock sex with this pillow, and proves he's top dog with this pillow - even as he eviscerates it. It is his lover and his slave. He will not be parted with his pillow.

We all have our pillows. Some of us are married to them.

Gramophone has for a number of years done composer surveys that either pick key works from their oeuvre, or focus on one particular work. Here is one for a certain PC by Beethoven:
Surprise! There are also a bunch for Mahler.

And that's just for starters. You might want to consider an annual subscription to their reviews database, which gives you access to every review since issue No. 1.

BBC Music Magazine also has its share of features.

Their listing of reviews for Mahler's Symphony No. 5 alone will keep you busy for days.

In short, you need not part with your Penguin. But you might want to supplement it with these other sources. Note the existence of the rare live Tennstedt No. 5 in the NYP historic set cited above.

jason victor serinus