Vänskä’s Much Improved Mahler 4th

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Osmo Vänskä’s Minnesota Mahler cycle has been pretty uniformly dismal: expressively neutral, glacially played, tensionless, and interpretively fussy. This Fourth represents a big improvement, I’m relieved to report. Everyone seems to have woken up. The phrasing of Mahler’s captivating melodies has life. The woodwind solos have suddenly acquired personality, and Vänskä’s conducting sounds attentive both to the letter of the score as well as the spirit. There are no gratuitous mannerisms. He still revels in the orchestra’s evident virtuosity, but never at the expense of the music’s emotional content.

To be sure, there are moments that could have even more color. The passage for four unison flutes in the first movement should sound raw, folk-like, and not quite so, well, in unison. The solo trumpet at the first big climax needs to be more brash. Both the solo violin and the solo horn in the scherzo play superbly, but could give more edge to their theoretically pungent rusticity. I’m not suggesting that the music is underplayed. It isn’t. This is a legitimate way of doing it. Textures are wonderfully transparent; balances consistently well-judged. In Mahler’s most stylized symphony, the suaveness of execution suits the work’s neoclassical demeanor. It’s just that other versions manage to dig a little deeper, subtly emphasizing music’s oddness and the dark undercurrent of passion that runs through the whole, surfacing only momentarily in the great Adagio.

Happily, Carolyn Sampson in the finale sings fabulously, making the movement the true climax of the entire work. It is also here that Vänskä best manages to sound both attentive to the music’s fantastic coloristic detail, but also natural and spontaneous. Typically excellent sonics make this release easily the best in the series thus far, and for my money the only one really worth hearing.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bernstein (Sony); Fischer (Channel Classics); Levine (RCA)

  • BIS - 2356
  • SACD

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