Mahler: Symphony No 2 - Minnesota Orch/Vänskä - 8 June 2007

The end of season finale in Minneapolis was a concert about which I had mixed feelings even before the first note. To start a season with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony is all well and good, as even if the first night is musically lacking, there's generally better music to come. But to finish a long and - from what I've heard - splendid, season on a high note with this work is notoriously difficult.

As it turned out Vänskä did the right thing in starting the work off at a brisk pace and that helped the piece along. Its an odd work in many ways - this first movement is followed by a long pause in the score - IIRC Sir Simon Rattle once left 5 minutes gap between movements. The temptation is I think to use this as a justification for over-emphasising the first movement's dramatic weight. Its not the first half of a symphony and shouldn't be treated as such.

In the middle movements Vänskä brought in some of his own ideas of pacing and balance. I liked them - I generally do, but they didn't come together as a breath of fresh air blowing away the cobwebs. The orchestra played very well and I found it hard to decide whether the relatively thin violin tone was intentional or not. In Mahler 5 at the Proms a couple of years ago I felt the strings were rather under-powered but more flexible - this time I didn't hear the pay-off.

Singing in recordings of this symphony has been notable for years, most recently Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Urlicht in the Tilson Thomas' recording. One shouldn't forget that live singing is much harder and without the help of microphone placement that can be just right, the singers in live performance rarely come over as well as on CD. The soloists - Helena Juntunen, soprano Jennifer Larmore, mezzo sang handsomely.

The Minnesota Chorale were incisive and lusty. Their contribution was as good as any singing I've heard live or in recording. The interest/obsession of the conductor in dynamics brought this part of the symphony to life in a most magical way. Most especially we had the telling tiny pianissimi, a loud symphony was found to have a quieter inner life.

As the finale movement struck up I was struck once more about the great dangers of expectation in any musical performance. Not every performance can match the last or hit the same high points: this performance had some great things but didn't bundle them into an even bigger whole. There's more than one way to bring out this symphony and as with Mahler 5 at the Proms, Vänskä's is not a showman's way. There's a banal - dare I say Elgarian - grandeur to this music. Uncharitably I might even say that it is an empty vessel, Vänskä's truth is to bring that out too.

I got more spirituality from Vänskä's reading of Kullervo - but that is Sibelius' genius compared to Mahler's - Vänskä is democratic in his art.


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