Vänskä Starts His New Mahler Cycle Badly

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 4

Sound Quality: 9

This has got to be the most expressively sterile, emotionally neutral performance of Mahler’s Fifth yet captured on disc. I might call it a “CD from Hell” except that it’s not even that interesting. To be sure, the symphony has tripped up many a fine Mahler interpreter, but Vänskä hasn’t yet earned that distinction, and evidently he has a way to go before he does. Let’s start at the beginning.

The first movement is a true funeral march. Literally. It’s dead. The opening threnody sounds benumbed, which is fine if the music wakes up at that first, hysterical outburst, but it doesn’t. The ensuing wind band passage (figure 12) has never been played more metronomically. “Stormily agitated” and “With the greatest vehemence” hardly describe the tightly controlled start of the second movement. You can practically hear the players counting eighth notes. Its second subject, which Mahler marks to be played in the tempo of the opening funeral march, is far too slow, and the chattering accompaniment in the woodwinds is louder than the tune. So it goes.

The scherzo is a mess of illogical tempo relationships. As in the previous movement, where Mahler’s score says “don’t drag,” Vänskä tends to hurry forward; where it says “don’t rush,” he slams on the brakes. The first trio section features exaggerated portamentos, the very opposite of the gracious, relaxed spontaneity that Mahler had in mind. Those little breath pauses (“Luftpausen”) at figures 17 and 26, so exciting when observed, get ignored entirely. The Adagietto is slooooooooooowwww–some twelve and half minutes. I’m not a fan of those who insist that it be played as quickly as it was done originally, or sometimes is again today (around eight minutes). It’s really a question of contrast and proportion, but this version is lethal.

In the finale, Vänskä achieves an impressive degree of contrapuntal clarity, but at a droopy speed and with a mechanical, sewing machine approach to articulation that makes the fugal episodes (i.e. most of the movement) tedious. As with his pretty dreadful Sibelius cycle with this same band, it’s clear that he has turned into one of those interpretive micromanagers who fiddles around with the music just because he can. It’s a depressing transformation in an interpreter whose prior work often revealed interesting ideas presented idiomatically, in context. We can only hope that this is just a phase.

As for the Minnesota Orchestra, the playing is technically excellent, but faceless. You can appreciate the fine solo horn, the woodwinds playing with their bells up, or the precise string ensemble, but– whether the result of Vänskä’s expressive straightjacket or a simple dearth of personality–it comes across as cold and contrived. Mahler’s Fifth contains some of the most gut-wrenching, intense music in the symphonic repertoire. Its moods swing from the blackest despair to uninhibited giddiness. You won’t hear them in this abstract, clinical exercise in podium control.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Levine (RCA); Karajan (DG); Stenz I (ABC Classics)

  • BIS - 2226
  • SACD

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