Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony started life as a single-movement tone poem called Todtenfeier (‘Funeral Rites’). Completed in 1888 – one year before Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration – it echoed the composer's vision of seeing himself lying dead in a funeral bier surrounded by flowers. Deciding to use it as his opening movement, Mahler didn't finish the complete five-movement symphony until more than six years later, the longest time he spent on any work. The huge scale of the work apart, its weighty subject matter may well have contributed to the slow progress: Mahler himself outlined a scenario making references to the ultimate meaning of life and death (first movement), recollections of lost innocence and the desperation ofRead more unbelief (second and third movements), the return to naïve faith (fourth movement) and final redemption from the last judgement (finale). To convey this he took recourse to the human voice: incorporating a solo alto in the 4th movement Urlicht, he went on in the finale to risk comparison with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by introducing a choir, as well as a soprano and alto soloist. Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä have received praise for their previous Mahler recordings (‘Vänskä and the orchestra are among the finest exponents of Mahler’s music...’, allmusic.com). The team is here joined by soloists Ruby Hughes and Sasha Cooke and the Minnesota Chorale in the deeply moving close to the vast and tumultuous panorama that is his Second Symphony.
Vänskä’s account will certainly strike some listeners as controversial. The rest of the reading however, seems much more satisfactory. He adopts a nicely relaxed approach – and pace – for the second movement. The strings play very stylishly and the recording differentiates very well indeed between the various string parts. The third movement is also largely a success; the sardonic humour comes across quite well – as is in keeping with the original Knaben Wunderhorn song on which the movement is based. The orchestra points the music very effectively with special praise for the woodwind in this regard. The wild premonition of the finale (8:03) is projected with dramatic force and urgency.
Sasha Cooke sings Urlicht very well indeed. She may not be as individual a singer as, say, Dame Janet Baker or Magdalaena Kožená on the two Rattle recordings. However, there’s a great deal to be said for her approach, which certainly doesn’t preclude eloquence. I like the sound she makes very much indeed.
The huge finale is unleashed in dramatic fashion and the vivid impact of the bass drum stroke is typical of the quality of the BIS recording. Vänskä handles this vast musical fresco pretty well. The drama is projected strongly, not least in the huge march episode that follows those two apocalyptic percussion crescendi (9:21). The grosse Appell is impressive (17:16): the distant brass is very well handled in the recording and the solo piccolo and flute distinguish themselves. When the choir begins to sing (20:01) their sound is hushed but distinct, which is as it should be. Ruby Hughes’ silvery voice rises gently and sweetly from the midst of the singers at the end of the first long phrase. Miss Hughes does very well, too, in the ‘O Glaube’ duet with Sasha Cooke.
Despite reservations over his way with the first movement, there’s much about Osmo Vänskä’s traversal of ‘Resurrection’ that’s highly commendable. In any case, other listeners may more readily embrace all aspects of the interpretation. The performance is highly accomplished. Vänskä has a good choir at his disposal and two excellent soloists. As for his orchestra, they play the music marvellously. There are many idiomatic touches such as string portamenti while accents – so crucial in Mahler – and dynamics are scrupulously observed.