By Matthew Philion
This fall, the Minnesota Orchestra continues recording the symphonies of Gustav Mahler for the BIS Records label. In November, Maestro Vänskä and the ensemble will tackle—first in concerts and then in recording sessions—one of the composer’s most challenging works: the Seventh Symphony, a genuine orchestral showpiece.
It’s a minor miracle that today’s orchestras record at all. Committing to tape a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra is an expensive and complicated undertaking, especially with a work like the Mahler Seventh—it requires essentially the entire roster of orchestra musicians, as well as additional instruments like tenor horn, guitar, and mandolin.
So the question arises: why do symphony orchestras continue to record?
First, a professional-quality commercial recording is a sonic postcard that carries an orchestra’s sound and style to the rest of the world. For example, in the 1950s and 60s, the Mercury Records label frequently recorded the Minneapolis Symphony (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra, of course), as part of their Living Presence series. Through a combination of expert playing, effective marketing, and the label’s unequaled technical abilities, the Orchestra garnered worldwide attention almost overnight. Those recordings set standards of performance and sound quality that continue to this day.
Recordings also motivate an ensemble to play near the peak of perfection. Before a recording date arrives, each player has mastered a work’s challenging parts, they’ve rehearsed the piece together, they’ve presented it in concert two or three times. The recording sessions that follow allow them to demonstrate their very best musicianship. As the Minnesota Orchestra’s Principal Trombone R. Douglas Wright puts it, “Every time we record, we grow and improve as an orchestra. The recording process is somewhat like taking the orchestra’s playing and putting it under a microscope. During play-backs, we really get to hear what we sound like in a much more objective way than we do while sitting on stage. When you’re putting something out there that’s going to last forever, it really inspires you to be meticulous in your approach to playing and listening."
Conductors have unique challenges in making that “perfect” recording. For the Minnesota Orchestra’s series of albums featuring the music of Jean Sibelius, Music Director Osmo Vänskä had daunting competition—his own highly regarded recordings of the same works made with a different ensemble earlier in his career. It’s a testament to Vänskä’s ability to learn new insights from the scores that classical listeners responded so well to his “new” Sibelius, leading to a Grammy award in 2014 for Best Orchestral Performance for the First and Fourth Symphonies.
Finally, orchestral recordings are kinetic documents that preserve an ensemble’s legacy. A case in point: conductor Antal Dorati’s classic 1957 stereo recording with the Minneapolis Symphony of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, which sounds as fresh and idiomatic now as the day it was put to tape. It’s a vibrant performance that caught a moment in time: the conductor’s skill with Copland’s music, the acoustics of the hall (Northrop Auditorium), the musical styles of the individual players, even the unique instruments they played. Listeners enjoying the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent performance of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (performed in the newly updated Northrop) could marvel at the continuing perfection and relevance of their hometown orchestra, sitting in the same hall that Antal Dorati made famous with his recordings over a half century ago.
Maestro Vänskä and the Orchestra’s first releases in the Mahler series—the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies—reveal a true affinity for the Austrian composer’s sound world. Upcoming releases will undoubtedly add to the ensemble’s heritage of classic, timeless recordings—and offer future generations a musical snapshot of this singular moment in Minnesota Orchestra history.
Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, former classical music DJ, and amateur trombone and euphonium player. He has been a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra since attending his first concert in 1978—a laser light show at the St. Paul Auditorium featuring music from Star Wars and The Planets.