Symphony No 5 
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä

Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra’s Mahler has all the hallmarks of their much-praised Sibelius series: excellent orchestral balance, polished playing from the soloists, and a feel for creating atmosphere. The recording quality is absolutely first-rate too: clear, realistic and clean.

This is not a work that has languished in the doldrums recording-wise, but Vänskä has an individual take on it. He does not search out the psychological angst and deep melancholy that Bernstein and Tennstedt found in the early movements: rather than looking forward to the tragic Sixth and Ninth Symphonies, as they did, Vänskä relates the Fifth back to its pastoral predecessors, Nos 3 and 4. His tempi tend not to linger: he pushes forward in the style of a compelling storyteller. 

To my ears Vänskä treats this work as though it were the accompaniment to a fairy tale. There is a real sense of setting up a story in the varied and episodic First Movement. The energetic bite of the Second Movement conjures up a theatrical stage villain. Even stronger is the sense of sheer playfulness in the Scherzo and the Finale. The first of these is packed with comic machinations – dwarves can’t be far off! – with a lightly balletic turn in the waltz episode for the strings. 

Most of all, in the hushed Adagietto, Vänskä eschews any sense of the mourning sometimes associated with this music in order to give us the tenderest of love scenes. I realise that this may all sound a bit fanciful, but listen to the recording and you will hear what I mean. The result is a delightfully fresh performance with the constant sense of a story unfolding, shot through with that essential element
of the fairy tale genre, wide-eyed innocence. 

Mahler himself famously opined that a symphony should contain the whole world, but the world that this performance encapsulates is clearly one of make-believe and wonder. And  judging from the final bars, “they all lived happily ever after” (something that cannot be said for the final bars of the Ninth or Das Lied von der Erde). 

In musical terms, Vänskä’s fresh approach is fully realised. The horn playing, notably in the Third Movement, is characterfully done. Every section of the orchestra shines, including the percussion who are perfectly balanced in the orchestral picture. While I would never discard Bernstein, Karajan, Tennstedt and Abbado, this is very far from run-of-the-mill.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine