One of the great Mahler Fifths on record

One of the great Mahler Fifths on record


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2017

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

If you go out and buy the Minnesota Orchestra’s Bis recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony, rest assured that you need never buy another. It’s resoundingly well played in every department, devoid of the bravado that impairs some American performances, and discreetly shaped by the music director Osmo Vänskä, who finds organic solutions for some of the more abrupt shifts in the score.

Read on here for the twist in the tail.

And here.

And here.


  • harold braun says:

    Absolutely agree.Terrific recording.

  • Robert Berger says:

    What does Lebrecht mean by “bravado ” and how could this “impair” performances by US orchestras ? Bravado sounds like a GOOD thing in orchestral performances !

    • Pamela Brown says:

      No, ‘bravado’ in this case means ‘grandstanding’. It’s what the horns tend to do in most any Mahler recording, for example…

      • Robert Berger says:

        I’m a former horn player myself . Then why does Mahler sometimes ask the horns to stand up in climactic passages ? He wants the horns to strut their stuff !

  • Daphne Badger says:

    But David Hurwitz thought it was abysmal – – so who do we trust? How can one performance garner such disparate reviews from two experienced and supposedly reputable critics?

    • Tommy says:

      For me your two questions are easy to answer.

      Trust NL – this BIS release is super fine. Stunning sound quality!

      Mahler is a composer whose complex music is almost all over the place, interpretation wise. Mahler is the next composer awaiting a real (scholar?) clean-up. He quickly became important to every conductor and orchestra on this planet, so eventually the roots of Mahler’s music is somewhat lost. I want pretend that I have much to offer here, but I believe there is a certain Viennese charm and style of playing gone awry.

      • Novagerio says:

        “Next composer awaiting a real scholar clean-up?”…Mahler was the composer-conductor who would change the orchestration of his own scores every time he faced any given orchestra in any given acoustic in any given town…What will we ever know about his “real” intentions?…

    • Emil says:

      …listen to it?

    • Bruce says:

      Daphne — criticism is subjective. Of course critics can be more knowledgeable or less, but it’s a bit like when people have differing opinions about the same person. Imagine the following scenario:

      “I heard about a new person at work, X. Friend A likes him, thinks he’s funny, quick-witted, and outgoing. Friend B thinks he’s mean, makes fun of people, and he’s loud & obnoxious. For my own part, I think Friend A is hilarious & fun but sometimes a little bitchy, and Friend B is kind & thoughtful but sometimes a little judgmental. So how should I decide whether to become friends with X?”

      The answer is going to be complicated, of course: a mix of what you think of Friends A & B (and yourself) as judges of character, further observation of X, your own likes & dislikes, and trusting your own judgment. Knowing what Friends A & B prefer, and how their preferences overlap with yours, can help you decide whether you are interested in finding out more about X. And then, if you do find out more about X, you can decide whose judgment was sound and whose was not, and whose judgment to trust more (or less) in the future, and use the experience to refine your own judgment as well.

      As you get more familiar with a critic, you learn to take that critic’s preferences into account when forming your own opinion.

    • John says:

      Then look at all the ‘expert’ opinions here that are all over the map and I think you’ll have your answer. (It’s all very subjective.)

    • Pamela Brown says:

      I have seen no buzz about this recording at all on the Mahler List, so Norman may just be having another hype-fest. :-0

    • Manny Laureano says:

      Please forgive me if I say that your reminds me of the comedic internet clip that has a bunch of people standing on an escalator which suddenly stops. The people standing on the escalator start screaming for assistance… rather than just walk twenty feet to the next floor.

      Might I suggest you pick up copies of both or go to any number of online sources that are less expensive if price is an object? As a member of one of the orchestras I’m gratified NL found the recording so enjoyable but ultimately it’s still just his opinion albeit wonderfully positive.

      • Uri Golomb says:

        Actually, both critics agree on much. Take these sentences: “Vänskä’s approach is coolly objective. He plays what is in the score and allows the listener to find his or her own level of emotional engagement”: they come from Lebrecht’s laudatory review, but could easily have been integrated into Hurwitz’s scathing critique. It seems to me that they disagree, not about Vänskä does, but rather about how Mahler should be done. Lebrecht seems to think that “cool objectivity” is a legitimate approach in Mahler, whereas Hurwitz seems to think it’s entirely inappropriate.
        So — ultimately it’s up to you. If you already know where you stand on this debate, you’ll know whether you’re more likely to agree with Lebrecht or with Hurwitz. I commend them both for including a detailed enough description of the performance to allow readers to understand the reasoning behind their opposing positions.

    • Pauk says:

      You can have five very knowledgeable critics that gets five very different opinions. In the end it comes to your own personal taste, no individual critic is the final word.

  • John Porter says:

    It seems that more and more people are taking some sort of very personal hard stand on Mahler. For me, the problem with Mahler and most who try to conduct his music is that Mahler’s become sort of deified and most conductors and musicians have lost touch with his Bohemian roots. Take good listen to Uri Caine’s Urlicht/Primal Light recording, if you want to get a sense of the DNA of Mahler. It takes a jazz pianist, composer, and scholar to uncover layers of lacquer that most conductors have painted on top of Mahler.

  • Steve P says:

    I tried this recording and it didn’t do much for me. After listening to his Sibelius 2 & 5 with Minnesota today, I’m inclined to give it another try. I long believed the Lahti recordings would be the apex; Minnesota completely blew that theory away.
    So, Mahler 5 this weekend.

    • Pamela Brown says:

      Unfortunately, I find the MO Sibelius recordings lovely on first hearing and empty after that.

      It will be a very long time (if ever) before I will be able to listen to them performing Mahler.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I really respect NL in regards to Mahler, but this cd went straight to Give It Away pile. Well played, well recorded and deadly dull conducting. Where’s the snap and Snarl? Why such slow tempo for the Adagietto? My standard for performance remains Bruno Walter with Solti a close second. Vanska is not romantic enough for this music.

    • PaulD says:

      I fully agree. I found the recording to be inert, lacking tension. I kept thinking about the Solti 1970 recording, especially at the end of the third movement.

      Having heard the Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony perform the piece live, during its tour of the U.S., I’d pick that one over Vanska’s.

    • Pamela Brown says:

      Norman seems to have a penchant for hyping the Minnesota Orchestra for some strange reason, no matter what they do.

      In this case, I think his statement (from the review) “As I said, no Mahlerian will be disappointed.” is unhelpful. I doubt that any serious Mahlerian will fall for it though…:-)

      • Paul Drapiewski says:

        You would be wrong Pamela. I have been a Mahler fanatic for 45 years and Vanska’s Mahler 5th to me is spellbinding.

    • Paul Drapiewski says:

      To each his own. I think Vanska/Minnesota is superb – one of the half dozen best ever. Absolutely spellbinding – my only complaints are that the violins are poorly highlighted at times, and the Adagietto is too slow.

      Solti’s recordings of the middle symphonies 5-7 to me are among the least satisfying I have heard – turgid and rather characterless. (And I love much of Solti’s work).

      It is not just knowledge that counts – everyone has their own perspective and taste, and no one’s opinion is better than anyone else’s.

    • Paul says:

      I think Solti’s Fifth is one of the worst ever. It was the first Mahler 5th I ever heard, and I loved it until I heard other recordings and realized what was missing. (Just about everything).

      Vanska is not perfect – the Adagietto is indeed too slow, but overall I find it to be thrilling. He really makes the most of Mahler’s orchestration. The new relese of the 1st is absolutely the best I have ever heard.

  • CRStager says:

    Norman – of the several Tennstedts, which is your preferred? There are two with the LPO, and I think another with the Concertgebouw and still another with the New York Phil…

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The last one – live with the LPO. I was there and, though some edits have been made, it is astonishingly vivid.

      • Heifetz63 says:

        No, best of all is Tennstedts Fifth with the NDR in Hamburg 1980. The recording was awardet the “Toblacher Komponierhäuschen 2015”.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    After hearing the Sibelius and Beethoven cycles of this conductor and orchestra, as well as a couple of their live performances, including the Mahler 5, I am still not able understand the unisono hymn of praise and enthusiasm to this combo, which seem to enjoy an unusually high reputation in the press.

    Their playing has no fire, no soul, no Alleinstellungs- und Wiedererkennungsmerkmal whatsoever. It could just be any technically well trained, but musically mediocre orchestra in any corner of the world. I heard that they had a long and exhausting fight for higher payment. Maybe it’s time for them to concentrate on music-making again.

    For me, the best Mahler 5 is still the legendary performance by Rudolf Barshai and Junge Deutsche Philharmonie.

    • Steve P says:

      Haven’t heard the Beethoven cycle, but unsure how you can rate the Sibelius so poorly; I found it magnificent. To each his own.
      Agree 100% with your top Mahler 5 pick – I’d add Barbirolli as a 1B.

      • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

        @STEVE P

        Haha, I have exact the same question of how could Vanska’s Minnesota Sibelius cycle be rated so highly! To be honest, I also had very high expectations on this new set before purchasing it. It was a full-priced new production by BIS in the Sibelius year. So it must be good! And everybody seemed to only have very positive words about this conductor and orchestra.

        But after listening to it several times, I must say I am more than disappointed. Normally I won’t completely dismiss a recording or performance just because I don’t like the way of his interpretation, no matter how eccentric and diametrically different to my personal preference it is. In this matter, I must say I am not intolerant. However, what this Minnesota Sibelius cycle disturbs me most is how unengaged, underwhelmed and uninspired they played. It is almost bureaucratic!

        When confronted with a new Sibelius cycle, I always jump to the 3rd symphony for a preliminary, but often surprisingly reliable, check-up, because more often than not, this is the piece that the musicians like ths least. If it is still good, then the rest of the cycle can only be better! Unfortunately, Vanska and his Minnesota colleagues did the 3rd pretty badly. Then I listened to the other symphonies. They were never better than just being “OK”.

        Among the dozen Sibelius cycles I have, my all-time favorite is still the Ashkenazy + Philharmonia cycle by Decca. It’s superly played and recorded, the 3rd symphony inclusive!

        Since I always like the agility and open-mindedness of smaller-sized ensembles, I would add Berglund’s rendering with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (released by Finlandia) to my must-have list.

        Among the recent new recordings around the Sibelius 150 Jubilee, I find Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker did a pretty decent job. And the CD set is so extremely well made that you really have a reason to buy it in physical medium.

        • Steve P says:

          I love the Ashkenazi, too, but it is a much heavier -handed rendition than either the Lahti or now Minnesota versions (and the 3rd is a favorite with Minnesota now – listened to it walking the dog this morning).
          I’ll give BPO a try on Apple music first; not sure I trust Rattle in Sibelius enough to buy the cds yet.

          • Paul Drapiewski says:

            Colin Davis (the newest one) and Neeme Jarvi are my two favorites – for totally different reasons. Ashkenazy is good too.

          • @ Paul
            Neeme Järvi on BIS or DG? Or are they the same?
            I like this overly underrated conductor a lot! His Sibelius 1 on BIS was superb. Glad to hear he has done the cycle.

        • Anon says:

          I find the Rattle Sibelius mediocre to appalling, uninspired mostly. The recorded sound is so poor, as in opposite of rich. One-dimensional.
          Nichts packendes. Nur viele Noten und manchmal etwas Hochglanzporno.

          • Robert Berger says:

            I haven’t heard Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic Sibelius set but I like his earlier one with the City of Birmingham symphony on EMI very much . And Rattle’s conducting in general .

          • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:


            Interesting observation …
            Which format were you talking about? I only listened to the 24/96 pure audio Bluray disc. It was really not bad, although I am actually not a fan of such kind of pseudo hi-res stuffs. But maybe they were playing some tricks to have two differently mastered version for CD and hi-res audio. Who knows …

        • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

          @ Anon

          And I am sure they will soon release their high-gloss porno in 3D virtual reality with 4K video and 5.1-channel 24/192 audio. Oh, there is also a limited edition of a pure analog recording on 180g vinyl ;D

        • Mark Henriksen says:

          What about the Colin Davis cycle with Boston? I has guts.

    • Casey Clausen says:

      Regarding “I heard that they had a long and exhausting fight for higher payment,” it was a little different than that. The orchestra was locked out by management, so they were fighting to receive the pay that had already been committed to them.

      Did you hear this from David Hurwitz? For some reason he refuses to acknowledge the difference between a lockout and a strike and has incorrectly stated in one of his reviews of a Minnesota Orchestra recording that they went on strike. If he can’t get that difference straight, then I’m not particularly interested in reading what he has to say about the music.

      • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

        @ Casey

        No, how come …? The last time I heard something from Hurwitz was maybe 10 years ago? No traffic anymore since the wall was built.

        As Herbert Blomstedt stated: ” Don’t believe everything you hear.” The truth is always somewhere in between. However, I am not here to judge who was right or wrong. One thing is for sure though, musically it could not be a good thing.

        • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

          ” Despite cuts, the Minnesota Orchestra will remain one of the ten highest-paid orchestras in America, with a minimum base salary of $96,824 in the first year of the contract, going up to $102,284 by the third year. ”

          Hehe, a First World Problem …

  • Richard Slack says:

    In the long run a recording is not a performance, it is a reminder or perhaps preview of what the music sounds like so you can construct it in your head, at least that is what I do and why I don’t read in great depth, record reviews. Is that odd of me. I imagine NL’s review is more about him perceiving the music than the recording its self just as his book on Mahler is more about his experiencing Mahler than the composer himself.

  • Paul Wells says:

    Several commenters here are posting conclusions about Lebrecht’s review without having read it. The one-of-the-great Mahler performances in the headline isn’t Vanska’s. It’s Mariss Jansons’. That’s the “twist” mentioned in the post above.

  • John Porter says:

    Okay, I got the recording and gave it two separate listening sessions. Boring. I am sorry. To me, it is Mahler with a dose of anesthetic. Mahler is gritty, earthy, a bit off kilter. This recording is just two normal.

  • John Porter says:

    Okay, I got the recording and gave it two separate listening sessions. Boring. I am sorry. To me, it is Mahler with a dose of anesthetic. Mahler is gritty, earthy, a bit off kilter. This recording is just too normal.

  • Arto says:

    I still like Mehta’s 5th with the Los Angeles. Anyone else who likes this recording from the seventies?

    • Cubs Fan says:

      I liked it a lot, along with many other of his recordings; but he recorded the 5th with New York (twice) and now in Munich. His Mahler 2 from Vienna is top-drawer. He delivered terrific recordings of The Planet, Schmidt’s 4th, Mahler 3 & 6, Tchaikovsky symphonies, Bruckner…and a lot of fine opera! But like some other conductors, as he got older he lost that spark that made his early career so exciting. The implosion of the recording industry didn’t help. Sadly, he’s kind of vanished from the American scene. But I still remember vividly a Mahler 3rd played in the Grand Tetons he conducted some 30 years ago like it was yesterday. The most thrilling, beautiful, inspiring reading I’ve ever heard.

      • Robert Berger says:

        Mehta is still quite active and has been doing terrific things with the Munich opera and various Munich orchestras , plus Vienna, Berlin , Israel and in Florence and elsewhere plus his lifelong devotion to the Israel Philharmonic . He’s without a doubt, the most underrated conductor of the present day .

  • Pamela Brown says:

    BTW, I would be cautious running out to buy any BIS cds, as they seem to be superficially lovely, but lacking in substance. IMO, they take out way too much sound, leaving an empty vacuum where the soul of the piece should be. This can only be especially excruciating with Mahler…

    Just my 2 cents…

    • Robert Berger says:

      You mean BIS by Osmo Vanska I suppose . Not BIS recordings in general . In fact, they have a lot of terrific recordings by many different conductors , instrumentalists, singers and orchestras , and their sound can’t be beaten . BIS is a class act !

  • John Porter says:

    Interesting that not one person mentions Bernstein’s recording with Vienna, which remains my favorite. (His 1960’s recording with the NYP is just too poorly performed to recommend, unfortunately.) I have about 20 recordings of the work, including live versions with Mitropoulos and the NY Phil, made shortly before Mitropoulos’s demise, as well as a wonderful live version with Kubelik and the Concertgebouw, which is terrific. (Kubelik has a wonderful #7, live with the NYP as well.)

    As far as Tennestedt goes, I have his complete cycle with London, as well as a variety of individual recordings and just find him to be too stiff and regulated. Mahler needs a bit of controlled eccentricity and some degree of schmaltz and Tennestedt has very little of it, in my opinion.

  • hadrianus says:

    Vänska, after having been an uninteresting Sibelius conductor, now is allowed to start his Mahler cycle on BIS?… Who is going to buy this? From where does BIS get the money for a new Mahler cyle? Always wondering who was going to buy Sibelius-Vänska, but, as far as Sibelius is concerned, BIS’s complex about this composer is, anyway, over the top…

    • Totally agree.

      To release two new Sibelius cycles in the Sibelius Year was a joke. Unfortunately, both of them, Vanska+Minnesota & Kamu + Lahti, were flops. I don’t think either of them worth being recorded on CD.

      BIS was a good label. Not anymore now.