Revelatory performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony from Osmo Vänskä and the Seattle Symphony

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano), Mané Galoyan (soprano), Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 22.6.2023. (ZC)

Osmo Vänskä conducts Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano) and the Seattle Symphony © Carlin Ma

Mahler – Symphony No.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’

Performances of Gustav Mahler run the gamut interpretatively. Leonard Bernstein famously pushed an approach that was cosmic in scale yet probed the human condition. Rafael Kubelík’s approach was rustic and humane; he grounded his performances in Mahler’s abundant references to nature. There are also the modernists – conductors who see Mahler in the same way they might think of Schoenberg or Webern, as harbingers of music’s new path in the twentieth century. Boulez fits this category well.

It is time to add a new – and perhaps unexpected – musical lens through which we view Mahler: the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Fellow Finn and conductor Osmo Vänskä’s nearly complete Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra divides opinion. And I confess I have not heard much of it beyond the Fifth Symphony. So, I was curious to hear what the maestro might do with Mahler’s epic Second Symphony as a guest conductor with the Seattle Symphony. I was not disappointed.

There is a famous exchange between Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, which goes something like this. The two master symphonists met in 1907, and Sibelius remarked how much he admired the logic and structure of the symphonic form. This is consistent with what we, as his listeners, can appreciate. Over his seven symphonies, Sibelius continuously distills and sharpens his approach. But in response, Mahler reportedly said, ‘A symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything’.

The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony reflects Mahler’s mantra perfectly. As he chose to wrestle with life and death – heaven and human purpose – the composer seems to have had no choice but to throw everything into the mix. The work calls for an enormous orchestra, offstage brass, a chorus and two vocal soloists, all folded into more than eighty minutes of weighty music crafted with the aim of answering the unanswerable questions of life.

For Vänskä, a noted Sibelius interpreter, perhaps these unwieldy elements are part of the appeal. Is there any sense to be made from music that aspires to be everything? In the first of a two-concert performance of ‘Resurrection’ with the Seattle Symphony, he absolutely tried, and the approach worked most of the time.  In a way, Vänskä ‘deconstructed’ the work in a Sibelius-like manner, treating Mahler’s fragmentary motifs as building blocks to be re-assembled for the rapt audience. This approach had many advantages. Super pianissimo passages weren’t interludes to be glossed over, for example, but were necessary connections for the symphony’s many explosive climaxes.

Vänskä’s interpretation was supported by his smartly chosen tempos. Under the direction of a different baton, the harrowing first movement might have proceeded at a pace that wrung out every ounce of tension. And perhaps the second and third movements could have been a little less analytical. But that would not have been as effective in exposing Mahler’s structural intentions as Vänskä’s approach was. As a result, the final movement is a revelation, especially in the first half which reintroduces and further develops many of Mahler’s ideas from the previous four movements. And then, aided in large part by Vänskä’s subtle approach, it all comes to a moving close with the help of Joseph Crnko’s always stellar Seattle Symphony Chorale, and Mané Galoyan and Jennifer Johnson Cano as vocal soloists.

Once Vänskä, orchestra, chorus and soloists arrived at this point, I could not help but think about the meticulous way, in a much shorter time, Sibelius in his Seventh Symphony achieves the same effect. The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is still cosmic in scope, but Vänskä’s approach helped me understand why Mahler bristled at the idea of imposing extra musical descriptions on the work.

Vänskä’s vision for the work is only as good as the orchestra’s willingness to go along with it. What a joy it was to see our hometown orchestra pressed to the limit and rising to the challenge laid out by a great conductor like Vänskä. The performance rippled with purpose. The conductor and musicians seemed to be imploring audiences to stay invested in this great ensemble.

After years of plague, music director dust-ups and wholesale staffing changes, audiences need a reason to care again. Vänskä’s ‘Resurrection’ outclassed the performance led by Giancarlo Guererro that inauspiciously opened the Thomas Dausgaard years, and it may be one of the most gripping, thoughtfully conceived Mahler performances by the Seattle Symphony and its chorus in the last twenty years.

Zach Carstensen

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