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 Recording of the Week, Osmo Vänskä conducts Mahler's Tenth Symphony

Whenever a conductor embarks upon a cycle of Mahler symphonies, I am always intrigued to find out what they will do when it comes to the (unfinished) Tenth Symphony: some conductors only perform the first movement (essentially the only movement fully completed by Mahler), while others opt for one of the handful of "completions" of the entire symphony, based on Mahler's relatively elaborate short score.

Osmo VänskäBy far the most frequently chosen option is musicologist Deryck Cooke's "performing version of the draft", which since its first full performance in 1964 has gradually become accepted as a legitimate work in its own right. I was delighted to discover that this is the one chosen by Osmo Vänskä for his ongoing Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra, and I am perfectly happy to tip my hand early and say that this is easily the high point of the series so far.

From the opening, desolate phrases for violas (immaculate in both ensemble and intonation) to the subsequent warm yet increasingly angst-ridden Adagio section for strings and trombones, it's immediately clear that one of the huge strengths of this performance is the range of dynamics on offer: the first movement in particular contains several extended periods of almost impossibly quiet sustained notes from the upper strings, which are simply mesmerising. Even when the volume is barely above a whisper, the players draws you in so completely that when the great A flat minor eruption occurs about eighteen minutes into the movement, it comes as even more of a shock than usual!

With its constantly-changing time signature and unexpectedly off-kilter rhythms, the second-movement Scherzo must surely be one of Mahler's most challenging movements to perform, but the Minnesota players seem to take it all in their stride, with Vänskä even managing to introduce a spot of rubato here and there. The central Ländler episode is maybe not quite as earthy and rustic as I have heard elsewhere, but by way of compensation it becomes lyrical and delicate, providing an ideal contrast to the bustle of the outer sections. The conclusion of this movement is most gratifying, with the trumpets fearless in the upper extremes of register that Mahler requests.

The fourth and fifth movements are linked by two terrifying thuds from a military drum, and I can't recall another recording where I have experienced these strikes so viscerally. There's a savage quality that hits you in the stomach, imbuing these moments with a true sense of despair. If anyone is in doubt about the validity of performing the entire symphony, just listen to the flute solo from the fifth movement. I believe it is one of the most affecting melodies in all of Mahler's music, especially in this recording. As I mentioned earlier regarding the first movement, the richness of tone even in the quietest of passages is astonishing, and is for me what pushes this recording to the top of the pile. Both of the outer movements are quite lengthy and hard to pace, but the intensity that Vänskä sustains over such long stretches is incredibly impressive. So rapturous is the effect he creates that, when the spell is finally broken and the almighty thwack of the military drum returns about six minutes into the fifth movement (combined with what must be some of the angriest, most demonic tuba playing I have ever heard!), it is a devastating moment.

Similarly, the closing pages are nothing short of exquisite, and after all the previous turmoil (plus one last, quintessentially Mahlerian outburst on the concluding page of the score), the ending is serene, tranquil, and utterly satisfying. Sometimes a recording just does everything that you want it to, and this is most certainly the case here with this fervent and deeply emotional recording of Mahler's tragically unfinished final opus.

Performing Version by Deryck Cooke

Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä

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