Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - Vänskä
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
In Gustav Mahler's first four symphonies many of the themes originate in his own settings of folk poems from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn). A case in point, Symphony No. 4 is built around a single song, Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) which Mahler had composed some eight years earlier, in 1892. The song presents a child's vision of Heaven and is hinted at throughout the first three movements. In the fourth, marked ‘Sehr behaglich’ (Very comfortably), the song is heard in full from a solo soprano instructed by Mahler to sing: ‘with serene, childlike expression; completely without parody!’
The symphony is scored for a typically large, late-romantic orchestra (though without trombones and tuba) and an extensive percussion section which includes sleigh bells as well as glockenspiel. However Mahler mostly deploys his forces with a transparency and lightness more akin to chamber music or eighteenth-century models like Mozart or Haydn. The Fourth has become one of his best-loved symphonies, and is here performed by Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, joined by the angelic voice of English soprano Carolyn Sampson.
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Recorded in June 2018 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA, 24/96
Producer: Robert Suff
Sound engineer: Thore Brinkmann (Take5 Music Production)
Recording equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann, DPA 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.
Post-production: Editing: Jeffrey Ginn
Mixing: Thore Brinkmann, Matthias Spitzbarth, Robert Suff
Executive producer: Robert Suff
The Minnesota Orchestra recognizes the Douglas and Louise Leatherdale Fund for Music for supporting the work of Osmo Vänskä.
Review by Graham Williams - January 13, 2020
The cycle of Mahler symphonies from Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra for BIS continues apace. With this release we have reached the halfway stage of the project. Symphonies 7 and 10 have already been recorded for future release while performances and recording sessions of the Ninth Symphony are scheduled for June 2020. Thus the whole cycle should, hopefully, be on target for completion over the next couple of years.
Vanska’s Mahler has so far received rather mixed reviews with any negative criticism focused mainly on what some consider as his ultra cool approach to these symphonies, one that eschews the emotional angst that, for example, Bernstein brings to the composer’s music. On the positive side few would argue that Vanska’s more cerebral readings are notable for their cogency and clear sightedness that encourage the players of his excellent orchestra to give of their best.
Mahler’s 4th Symphony is, apart from the grotesqueries of the scherzo, a sunny and untroubled work that is ideally suited to the directness of Vanska’s reading. The opening movement is marked ‘Bedächtig. Nicht eilen’ (moderately, not rushed) and the basic tempo Vanska adopts here seems perfectly in accord with Mahler’s instruction. Besides the gentle warmth of the nuanced string playing one’s ear is drawn to the forthright interjections of the winds and brass and the transparency that Vanska achieves throughout his illuminating and characterful account of this movement. The scherzo described by Bruno Walter as a sort of uncanny fairy tale episode is treated with a light touch. Death represented by a solo violin tuned a whole tone higher (expertly played here by leader Erin Keefe) seems less sinister than on some other recordings and Vanska brilliantly relishes the opportunities for rubato and portamento that Mahler provides. As elsewhere the faultless precision of the Minnesota musicians is most impressive.
It is Vanska’s readings of the symphony’s final two movements that will surely convince even the most sceptic listeners of the conductor’s authoritative Mahlerian credentials. Lasting 23 minutes the third movement is a tad more measured than on seven of the eight recordings I have used for comparison, but is given an enthralling reading. The ravishing and diaphanous string playing of the main theme is heart-stopping and sets the mood for the gradual change to the more impassioned subsequent variations, each of which is beautifully shaped by the conductor. The fine BIS recording not only gives the movement’s climax, with its timpani thwacks, bass drum roll, harp glissandi, blazing trumpets and horns, tremendous impact but also the serene closing bars that hover on the edge of audibility.
The choice of soprano Carolyn Sampson as soloist in Mahler’s setting of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ that constitutes the fourth movement was an inspired one. Her experience both as a lieder singer and in the baroque repertoire ensures that she conveys the meaning of the text with complete understanding while her vocal purity and silvery tone perfectly adhere to the composer’s instruction to sing ‘with serene, childlike expression’, while Vanska’s sensitive and nuanced accompaniment perfectly illuminates each stanza of the poem. The liner notes helpfully include the German text and its English translation.
As with the previous releases in this series, the sound, expertly engineered by the BIS team of Robert Suff (Producer) and Thore Brinkmann (Sound engineer), is exceptionally clear (albeit on the lean side) and conveys the very wide dynamic range of the performance, while the 5.0 multi-channel recording convincingly recreates the acoustic of Orchestra Hall Minneapolis where the symphony was recorded in June 2018.
With scores of recordings of this and all the other Mahler Symphonies available on disc, aficionados of the composer will always have their existing favourite version in mind when approaching a newcomer, but it is fair to say that those in sympathy with Osmo Vanska’s individual but insightful style of Mahler interpretation will be delighted with this latest addition to the cycle and it can be confidently recommended even to those with multiple recordings of this work on their shelves.
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