Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Vänskä

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 - Vänskä

BIS  BIS-2226

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)

As a team, Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra began their collaboration with BIS in 2004, launching a Beethoven Symphony cycle that made reviewers worldwide sit up and take notice: a modern reference edition was the verdict on web site, while Gramophone Magazine described it as a Beethoven reforged for today's world . Twelve years later saw the release of the third and final disc in the Minnesota-Vänskä cycle of Sibelius's symphonies, with individual discs receiving distinctions such as a 2014 Grammy Award (for symphonies Nos 1 and 4), Gramophone's Editor's Choice, Choice of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and inclusion on the annual list of best classical recordings in New York Times.

The present disc launches yet another series, of even more monumental proportions, with Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, recorded by the orchestra under Osmo Vänskä in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in June 2016. Composed in 1902, the purely instrumental work followed upon three symphonies that had all included vocal parts. This and the opening trumpet motif, an allusion to the rhythm that begins Beethoven's Fifth have been interpreted as Mahler's return to a more conventional idea of the symphonic genre. Other features are less traditional, however a sometimes bewildering mixture of musical idioms reminds us of the melting-pot that Vienna was at the time, with allusions to Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian styles. To an unsuspecting audience, the famous Adagietto for strings and harp probably the best-known of all of Mahler's music must also have been surprising, appearing at the heart of a work which is otherwise lavishly scored and orchestrated.

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PCM recording

Recorded in June 2016 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA

Producer: Robert Suff
Sound engineer: Thore Brinkmann (Take5 Music Production)
Editing: Matthias Spitzbarth
Mixing: Thore Brinkmann, Robert Suff
Executive producer: Robert Suff

Equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.

Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - July 30, 2017

Following two prize-winning symphonic sets in HIRES (Beethoven and Sibelius, the latter twice), Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä and BIS now have unerringly turned to record the symphonies of Mahler. Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra are entering a competition born from a remarkable blossoming of complete Mahler Cycles on SACDs, which began around the beginning of the century and at the time of writing is about 17 sets. While that delighted the insouciant HIRES Mahlerites, it made work for Reviewers progressively difficult.

There can be no single magic 'Performance' against which everyone could hold any recorded performance, to judge it for purchase. Also, making 'valid' comparisons of musical performances becomes less and less useful in making choices as the number of Mahler Cycles increases. And in any case, musical conclusions are completely subjective, be they from writer, performer or listener. So the question given to a music collector (or ticket to a concert), "should I buy this?"' is a difficult one to answer!

Mahler began his Fifth Symphony (1901-1902) while he was 42 in age, marking his full maturity, and starting the first of a new trilogy, numbers Five, Sixth and Seventh, all purely 'realistic' instrumental symphonies, marking his middle period. He cast away most of the textures and sonorities of the first two symphonies; and substituted the new order of naked contrapuntal textures which often contain a hard edge made by extremely stark woodwind and brass. Also from 1901-1902 Mahler courted Alma, engaged her, married her and made a baby with her. Some of the emotions from that important phase of his life surely played into his Fifth.

For me, one of the important features of this new Symphony 5 that had my interest is that Vänskä and his orchestra apply a notable clarity of structure in the five movements, within which variously distinctive motifs and textures appear from movement to movement. Secondly, Vänskä appears to be following the score very well, considering that he has not played Symphony 5 as many times as those in the collection of other conductors who are very well versed with the work of their own distinctive interpretations. The 5ths score is peppered with instructions to conductor, whole orchestra and individual instruments, and interestingly there is a mix of German and Italian instructions.

Also very useful for this reading of Fifth is Vänskä's well-known control of dynamics in performance, and there are a number of marks 'ffff' (for loud) and/or 'pppp' (for the soft) in every movement; even the gentle Adagietto goes as high as 'ff' and fades away to pppp. To be aware of these variable sounds correctly on this BIS SACD I found it necessary to turn up the volume in my Denon several notches.

Here are some comments from my listening:
1. "Funeral March" (C sharp minor). The trumpet's first notes are a travesty of the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth. Following, Mahler's request for "measured pace, tempo as though a cortege" is well brought out with a tear-led folk-like melody, particularly with the steady paces from the deep basses. Later there is a sudden rushing, raging, despairing of the whole orchestra, and the violins have an edge to their tone. Returning, the slow march is returned to, but here adding sweet consolation from the woodwind, keeping a rhythmic 3/4 march, about which Mahler gives intimate details for the strings.

2. "Stormy and agitated, with the greatest vehemence" (A min). Note for the conductor: "Violins are to be as vehement as possible". A startling entry of the basses and cellos, supported by the bassoon and bass bassoon 'fff' of a short assertion and answered by a volatile short chord punctuation from the rest of strings aided by trumpets and trombones. The shocking whirl collapses and the Funeral March returns quietly, like a wandering folk melody with jaunty intervals which gradually crescendo into the initial storm, adding other themes while doing so. The end is joyful, unexpectedly, with high strings like scurrying winds, progressing to nobility. Then the quiet march theme, almost playful here by Vänskä and his orchestra, and bird songs sound from above, become very slow and the movement is ended by two low strings plucked A and C (enhancing the mother key of this movement in a satisfying way), with an instruction to "leave a long pause following".

3. "Scherzo" (D major). In effect this is a Ländler (a folk dance in Centural Europe) and is designed to counter the two movements of the funeral march. Mahler makes it a dance of Life, played "vigorously, not too fast". Vänskä manages to insert both playful Viennese waltz and an expressive Trio section and as the dance returns, make follows Mahler's instruction "The Woodwind section should not be 'covered' by the rest of the orchestra', which produces an interesting textural difference in the repeat, and the Glockenspiel is well forward in brightening output. The brilliant finale should follow Mahler's instruction and make the orchestra to go "six times faster to end". Did it?

4. "Adagietto" (F major). The most controversial of the movements. As Mahler doesn't use a metronome, musicians must take 'slightly faster than adagio (very slow)' and choose their own interpretation. Vänskä goes for the slower option than many other recordings (12:39, Fischer 10:49). The instruments required are Harp and strings, violins having 2 parts each. The fragrant entry of the strings at first seems distant, at the back of your mind, slowly coming to your attention. Cellos and violas have smooth, rich tones, the violins lovingly delicate and transparent - but all of them can rise to 'FFF'. In most of the melody, which seems like a love song (remember his marriage to Alma when Mahler was writing Symphony 5), I felt that the music was portraying an affirmation of Life. When intense and loud, perhaps the inner-self! One of my favourite Adagiettos.

5. "Rondo-Finale" (D Major). Speaks for itself, as does Vänskä's speed, 'Allegro giocoso', and joyful the Minnesota Orchestra are. This is the composer's artistic joy in symphonic creation, hurling the music to the end, where the speed and accuracy in the last few bars is thrilling.

Minneapolis Orchestra's Hall has an interesting history; first open in 1974 as a temporary building, but a renovation and expansion project was undertaken and opened in 2013. Its acoustics are very good, but in this case, listening in 5.1, the orchestra width sounds to be only between my large speakers, whereas I prefer large orchestras to be much wider - say as one would have listen sitting in the centre of the front row. The quality of the sound (24/96 to DSD), however, is very good, obeying Vänskä's very wide dynamics, and the focus gives a good back-to front image.

While the Minneapolis Orchestra does a very good job, they cannot produce sound as subtle as those top-of-the world orchestras which have made their own Mahler Cycles. However, Minneapolis are going to have a cycle of their own which will be made with Vänskä's freshness, effective as shown in this performance of the 5th; the first two movements and the Adagietto impressed me greatly.

"Do I want to have this disc?" Yes, I bought it and it is now in the ranks of Mahler in my shelves.

academic discussion of Jeremy Barham, the booklet writer and author of 'Perspectives on Gustav Mahler'.

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and


Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Comments (13)

Comment by Waveform - July 7, 2017 (1 of 13)

Here it is: the first album to Vänskä's new Mahler symphony cycle with Minnesota Orchestra! I just ordered my SACD copy directly at BIS online store. I assume it should arrive on Tuesday next week. Can't wait to listen to it!

The next releases might be available as follows:
- Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic" (October 2017 - they recorded the album in November 2016 at the Orchestra Hall; usually it takes about a year to bring an album from this point to its physical form)
- Symphony No. 2 in C minor "Resurrection" (March (or April) 2018 - they have recorded this at the end of June after the 2016/17 season finale concerts)
- Symphony No. 1 in D major "Titan" (November (or December) 2018 - Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will perform the work in March 2018)

In addition to this the rest of the symphonies (and quite possibly the Symphony No. 10 as well) to be available in the years to come. So my careful expectation is that the whole cycle will be finished in 2020 and BIS will release a 11-disc box set at the time. And of course the individual albums will be available to purchase online and from all good music stores (we should not forget the hi-res digital downloads that will be hosted by

As you can see this will be a large and significant project for BIS and for everyone behind it. Personally I am very excited to hear these discs albeit we are even now almost overcrowded by Mahler symphonies. The symphony cycles of Beethoven and Sibelius have proved the thing that Vänskä has some interesting and insightful views of familiar scores. He has managed to breath a new lease of life to the works we have heard countless times.

Comment by Waveform - July 11, 2017 (2 of 13)

"Oh no, not again! We have already Bernstein (twice), Abbado, Tennstedt, Kubelik, Haitink, Solti and Sinopoli. Why we should record and collect another Mahler cycle? Is something wrong with these?" I think quite many of us received the news of Minnesota Mahler cycle with those feelings. We are almost overwhelmed by Mahler symphonies and multiple cycles have been released and some of them have been recognized as the legends.

Against this background it was really a brave choice from BIS to start this recording project with Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. At first Beethoven, then Sibelius. Both projects - especially Beethoven - raised Minnesota Orchestra to the international music map as one of the greatest symphony orchestras in the world. Thanks to Vänskä's detailed views of the scores as well as BIS's wide-range surround sound the albums were warmly received among the consumers. For many - including me - they offered totally new way to understand these masterpieces.

You may think Vänskä is not a suitable conductor for the music of Mahler. He is a Finn and Finland has been a country of Mahlerians just for a while. The composer's music was undervalued there for decades and just recently it has received a status where it should have been many years earlier. So what will happen when a conductor - from the country like this - raises his baton and begins to conduct Mahler's Fifth Symphony? A MIRACLE - supported by exceptionally realistic multichannel sonics.

Vänskä has read this music very well. The famous trumpet fanfare at the beginning sounds ideally mournful yet never careful or doubtful. When the whole orchestra rushes in its heavy tone bursts out of the speakers. The most conspicuous track on the disc was the famous Adagietto - it is one of the slowest to have ever recorded, even slower than Bernstein (11'16)! But this does not mean vacuity - actually doing it in this way Vänskä finds the true heart of the music which means restful transitions between phrases and coherently realized climaxes. Scherzo has all aspects what it requires to come into full bloom. Playful and innocent beginning, affecting and sensitive trio section (pizz.) and finally a rousing, brief coda. Briefly speaking Vänskä's interpretation did full justice to Mahler's lifelong symphonic theme - from darkness to light, from the death to life.

As mentioned before BIS Records has managed to capture a stupendous surround sound at the concert hall in Minneapolis. You will never hear as realistic symphony orchestra recording as here. Every detail is audible from the softest bell of the glockenspiel to the loudest stroke of the bass drum. Centre channel has been used in a pleasant way to add perspective to the front, e.g. timpani has been recorded and mixed to it. Surround speakers have been used for the ambience and they will reproduce the acoustical bloom of the hall in a natural way. Demonstration stuff, definitely.

No matter how many Mahler 5 you may own, this one is a sheer delight. Can't wait to hear the forthcoming releases!

Comment by William Hecht - July 14, 2017 (3 of 13)

And that's not to mention sacd complete series by Stenz, Nott, Gergiev, Zinman, and Tilson Thomas, plus the RCO blu-ray set under several different conductors and significant chunks by Fischer and Zander. According to this site there are now 47 hi-res versions of the 5th, and that doesn't include other blu-ray videos. I will buy the Vanska recordings as they appear in order to support BIS because Robert does more to feed my habit than anyone else, especially by issuing numerous recordings of unusual repertoire. But really, enough is enough.

Comment by Graham Williams - July 31, 2017 (4 of 13)

Thank you John for an excellent, fair and very detailed review.

I think that your second paragraph says it all where new releases of Mahler are concerned.

One small point: you mention listening in 5.1 surround, but as far as I am aware all BIS releases are 5.0. Has their policy changed for this new Mahler cycle?

Comment by Waveform - July 31, 2017 (5 of 13)

Graham, it is 5.0 Surround. They have not changed their policy and they never will. We should not forget the introductions on BIS booklets:

"Our surround sound recordings aim to reproduce the natural sound in a concert venue as faith fully as possible, using the newest technology. In order to do so, all five channels are recorded using the full frequency range, with no separate bass channel added: a so-called 5.0 configuration. If your sub-woofer is switched on, however, most systems will also automatically feed the bass signal coming from the other channels into it. In the case of systems with limited bass reproduction, this may be of benefit to your listening experience".

Most surround sound systems today follows the limited bass reproduction (or at least mine follows it). I have listened to the album only once since I received it at BIS Online Store few weeks ago (though I did some listening tests with and without subwoofer during the session). It is recommended to use subwoofer with this recording, in my mind. Of course it is matter of your personal taste but I lost some crucial aspects of the surround sound mix if the subwoofer was switched off.

Comment by Tony Reif - August 1, 2017 (6 of 13)

Big thumbs down from David Hurwitz:

Comment by William Hecht - August 1, 2017 (7 of 13)

Now I'm really glad I ordered it!

Comment by Paul Hannah - August 2, 2017 (8 of 13)

Not going to waste a lot of flowery words . Its just a recording.................soon to be lost amongst the many................nothing outstanding.............Solti, Bernstein or Fisher on a bad day would leave it for dead !

A case of the Emperor's new clothes me thinks !

Tony....the review you posted the link to above is spot on !

Comment by John Miller - August 3, 2017 (9 of 13)

Thanks, Graham!
Perhaps I should have noted the usual BIS 5.0 in my SACD details. I was referring to my usual listening in 5.1 (the Denon AVR-X4000 was playing in it's PL IIx Music mode which sends the deep bass to my Quad. My listening room not very large, but with the Denon's Audyssey’s MultEQ-XT32bit highest level room calibration system, I get a very good impression of auditoria.

Cheers, John

Comment by Waveform - August 10, 2017 (10 of 13)

Well, it looks like Daniele Gatti has started the new Mahler cycle in Concertgebouw for RCO Live. The first album - Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection' - to be released on 1 September as Hybrid SACD, DVD Video and Blu-ray Video (not yet updated here). The album is already available for pre-order at Amazon and Presto Classical.

The following text has been taken at the description notes:

"The names of Gustav Mahler and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are inseparable. Willem Mengelberg's pioneering work and Mahler's own guest performances with the orchestra have laid the foundations for the Dutch Mahler cult and the RCO's Mahler tradition that flourished ever since. During the past years, Daniele Gatti has conducted strong and spectacular performances of four Mahler symphonies as a guest conductor. After the Fifth, Ninth, Sixth and Third, Gatti's first Mahler symphony as chief conductor was the Second Symphony.
This recording marks the start of a new RCO Live Mahler cycle with Daniele Gatti".

Here is the answer to my email that I sent to the office of RCO Live: "It is nice to hear that not only our performances but also the recordings themselves are appreciated! You may find it interesting to know that we are currently working on a Bruckner 4 and Mahler 2 recorded in DXD, which will (later this year) be released as SACDs but also as DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 and DXD downloads, both in stereo and surround".

Oh no, they already released one almost full cycle with Mariss Jansons (7th and 9th were missing). At least we have albums where to choose from...

Comment by Graham Williams - March 17, 2018 (11 of 13)

News from Minnesota 17 March 2018

"During the 2018-19 season, Mr. Vänskä and the Orchestra will perform and record Mahler’s Seventh and Tenth Symphonies, continuing a plan to record all of Mahler’s symphonies. Since June 2016, the Orchestra has recorded the Fifth, Sixth and Second Symphonies, with recordings of the First and Fourth Symphonies planned for March and June 2018. The recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony received a 2018 Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance, and the Sixth Symphony was just released in March 2018. Recordings of Mahler symphonies will be continue to be released in future seasons on the BIS Records label."

Anyone know whether the 10th will be more than just the Adagio?

Comment by John Broggio - March 18, 2018 (12 of 13)

Don't want to get your hopes up prematurely but the concert performances are of the Cooke completion:

Comment by William Hecht - March 19, 2018 (13 of 13)

Thanks, John, That's great news, particularly as we contemplate Adrian's post on the Liszt/Myrios thread (the numbers are slightly worse than those I got when I did a similar exercise at the end of 2016 and using MDT's monthly label by label recap I'd still get somewhat better numbers for 2017.) But clearly we are increasingly dependent on a small number of dedicated labels to whom we owe our thanks and custom.