Mahler: Symphony No. 6

Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

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Mahler Symphony No. 6
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2266 (hybrid CD/SACD) 86:48 mins

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Composed in 1903-4, Mahler’s Sixth represented a self-conscious turning away from the picturesque and numinous concerns of his earlier work towards a more severely classical structure and purely human drama, albeit on a vast and massively scored scale – a kind of combined Eroica Symphony and Ein Heldenleben of tragic import. Indeed, conductors who launch into it all with maximum force risk sonic overload and emotional burn-out long before the end. Yet by keeping a firm grip on the first three movements, Osmo Vänskä ensures that the vast and increasingly frantic finale, with its hammer-blows of Fate, really does come over as climactic, culminating in a last A minor blast and fade of annihilating intensity.

The work’s opening is crisp and disciplined rather than lumpen – this, after all, has the character of a military quick-march – and although Vänskä allows due flexibility to the more romantic second subject and to the remote music with cowbells where Mahler seems to hark back nostalgically to the nature music of his earlier works, the overall direction and shape of the opening movement is never lost. The slow movement is placed second and the scherzo third – Mahler’s revised order and surely preferable to the work’s overall balance of tempos – with much expressive and finely detailed playing from Minnesota principles. And, for all the wild triumphs and catastrophic reversals of the finale, its underlying form emerges with exceptional clarity, enhanced by a spacious but never over-resonant recorded acoustic. A welcome and convincing reappraisal of a difficult, not to say extreme score.

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Bayan Northcott