Osmo Vänskä & Minnesota Orchestra — Image via facebook.com/minnesotaorchestra

Season Finale: Sibelius & Mahler

Minnesota Orchestra
Conducted by Osmo Vänskä

Once upon a time — in 1907 to be precise — Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler took a walk together, or maybe it was a trip to the baths. Almost 30 years later, Sibelius related a discussion between them to his biographer. As Sibelius recalled it, he told Mahler that he “admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.” Mahler replied, “No; a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” to which Sibelius retorted, “If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances.”

Whether this discussion ever actually happened is a little unclear, but it has long stood as the framework through which the two composers’ symphonies are compared. And there is something to it — especially when comparing the three symphonies that Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra performed in this weekend’s season-closing concerts. For while Sibelius’s 6th and 7th symphonies create their own profoundly interior, abstract worlds, Mahler’s 1st draws extensively from the outside world, explicitly incorporating several varieties of folk music, as well as nature sounds, into a massive and wide-ranging epic.

Gustav Mahler — Image via wikimedia.orgJean Sibelius — Image via wikimedia.orgThis weekend’s concerts not only gave listeners an opportunity to hear the contrasts between these two widely compared contemporaries but also highlighted a transition in the orchestra’s recording priorities. In sessions this week, the musicians and Vänskä are putting the finishing touches on their long-delayed Sibelius cycle, while next spring marks the beginning of a Mahler project (not yet dubbed a cycle) that will begin with a recording of his Symphony No. 5. All signs point to this being a fruitful transition, for the orchestra turned in rich, crystalline performances of the Sibelius symphonies, brimming with confidence in their mastery of these complicated pieces, while their Mahler was full of exploratory excitement and insight.

Sibelius’s last two symphonies, composed in quick succession, are in some ways the inverses of each other. While No. 6 is in the traditional four movements, the music’s tempo and mood only subtly shifts between them. Overall, the dynamic range is relatively modest, and there is only one real climax, at the end of the third movement. Meanwhile, though No. 7 is in only one movement, it feels more symphonic in a way, traversing a wider range of tempos, dynamics, and colors as it wends its way toward its swelling conclusion. Vänskä and the musicians gave both pieces transparent performances that opened up their intricacies for public examination while maintaining their organic unity.

It is hard to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 without thinking all the music that influenced it and that it influenced, most obviously the nursery rhyme Frère Jacques, which appears as the theme of a minor-key funeral march, and the opening woodwind call over shimmering strings, so blatantly ripped off by Alexander Courage in the theme from Star Trek. In Vänskä’s hands, however, the symphony never came across as a pastiche. In particular, he avoided the tendency to exaggerate the folk material in the two middle movements. Instead, everything was woven together into a coherent symphonic argument, suggesting perhaps more of a connection with Sibelius than one normally detects.

It is notable that the orchestra and Vänskä chose to end this season of rejuvenation not with a super-accessible program featuring a well-loved soloist and a few pops nuggets thrown in but rather with a seemingly grueling three symphonies. It’s a choice that emphasizes the seriousness with which the orchestra is taking its current mission to, among many other things, delve deeply into the work of these two composers. Clearly, that seriousness is paying off, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

4 thoughts on “Season Finale: Sibelius & Mahler”

  1. I enjoyed the review, but would have appreciated more detail. Vanska’s choice of the entire double bass section to open the third movement of the Mahler was unfortunate, though now has become something of the norm. I find the solo bass more convincing — a single sad voice. The conductor also offered no sense of the klezmer accented central portion of the same movement. He was a bit too impatient, to me, in the symphony’s opening. Ultimately, however, as you have suggested, those details didn’t matter. Vanska generated much excitement and, for the most part, respect for both the forest and the trees. Thanks for the review. The only other one I’ve found online was of the mini-concert featuring the two superbly played Sibelius works alone.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I was wondering whether anyone would notice that I spent more time talking about context than about the actual concert. It’s a weakness of mine sometimes.

      As far as the klezmer episode goes, I did appreciate Vänskä not overdoing it to the point of parody, as is sometimes done.

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