The first release in Finnish maestro Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra – Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – divided critics and listeners, some finding in it a longed-for clarity and restraint while others heard in those same attributes a clinical sterility. There’s no doubt this disc, Mahler’s Sixth, will provoke a similar debate.
Dubbed Tragische (Tragic), Mahler’s Sixth was written when the composer was in his element – his second daughter Anna had just been born, his conducting career was at its height and his composing career was taking off – but people (not least his wife Alma) have been eager to find in the hammer blows of its final movement predictions of the triple-tragedy that would soon hit: the death of his eldest daughter, his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would eventually kill him. But he wasn’t to know all this when he wrote the symphony. As Jeremy Barham puts it in the liner notes, “approaching and creatively sublimating the ‘abyss’ requires confident assurance that one is secured against falling into it.”
As with Vänskä’s recording of the Fifth Symphony, this is no hot-blooded Bernstein. Vänskä takes the opening march at a steady, controlled pace, the grim martial figure beginning an expansive yet detailed reading of crystalline beauty. Vänskä eschews unbridled anguish for a slow-burn, brooding nightmare of, ultimately, mythic proportions.
Yet there is a magic to his treatment of the more subtle moments, like the dream-like flutes and pizzicato strings towards the end of the first movement and the clear, polished recording gives Mahler’s cowbells a striking immediacy that makes them all the more otherworldly.
Vänskä opts for the Andante–Scherzo order for the middle movements – the order Mahler himself conducted them – and in Vänskä’s long-game approach this architecture works effectively. While the tempi are restrained and the technical delivery flawless, this is by no means a sterile account. The climaxes build with an overwhelming strength that draws out the power in Mahler’s writing; there is as much smouldering as blazing. The Scherzo ratchets up the tension established from the first movement’s steady march while the finale is bleak and devastating.
There will be those for whom this recording doesn’t contain enough unrestrained passion, but in the vastness of the unique landscape Vänskä conjures – parallels can be drawn with his highly-regarded Sibelius cycle – he finds a power that runs deeper and is no less affecting.