> MAHLER symphony 3 Abbado [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1895-6)
Anna Larsson (Contralto)
London Symphony Chorus, City of Birmingham Youth Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recorded "live" at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 11 October 1999
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 502-2 [2 CDs: 97.40]


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This performance of Mahler’s Third was given by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in London in October 1999. It was first broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and DG acknowledges the BBC in the liner credits. It is not quite the same sound recording we radio listeners heard on the night, however. The DG engineers in Hamburg have undoubtedly been busy with the tape, but I’ll deal with that later. I do like "live" recordings, however, especially when they come from just one performance rather than a number edited together or from one with "patching" done later with no audience present. So here we really are in "the theatre of the concert hall" with few, if any, of the usual drawbacks. The audience is impeccably behaved and the orchestra is on top form. Perhaps they tire a little towards the end of the long evening, but that is what happens in concerts and only adds to the sense of occasion and really should worry only those who always demand the often clinical perfection of the studio.

This is the second time Abbado has recorded the Third. His studio version, also for DG, was made in Vienna and that was notable for its grasp of detail even though I always felt there was something missing in the direct communication department. Something that a "live" performance has every chance of redressing alongside offering a more mature interpretation. The extraordinary introduction section to the first movement is outstanding here for the acutely perceptive balancing of parts and sections and for the sense of a slow, inexorable forward momentum projected beneath the considerable degree of portent that Abbado brings. The lower string uprushes could kick a little more, as they do under Levine or Kubelik, but this might well be more to do with the recorded balance. Then notice the way the tone of the music lightens in the pastoral interlude at bars 57-131. The BPO delivers this material with a bright, golden tone so that when the terrific snarls arrive from the bass drum as the opening material reasserts itself it is that much more vivid when seen in such contrast. The fact that Abbado is so convincing in these two most important faces of this movement bodes well. The performances of the first movement that come off best are those that don’t shy away from the kaleidoscopic nature of a piece brimming with youthful exuberance and, most especially, sheer nerve. After all there had never been a symphonic movement like this before and you know Mahler knew it.

Another equally important face to the movement is the great march of summer that comes so much to dominate everything that it should, in the very best performances, give the impression of even threatening to take it over. Under Abbado it seems to begin from far away and then advance towards us before bursting out in its summer glory, just as it should. However what I don’t hear, certainly not to the same degree, is the sheer bumptious effrontery of it all that I do get with Barbirolli (BBC Legends BBCL 4004-7), Kubelik (DG 463 738-2 and part of a complete cycle), Horenstein (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2006/7 and also Brilliant Classics 99549 as part of a multi-conductor cycle) and Bernstein (Sony SM2K 47 576). These four conductors make no apologies at all for those march passages of "in your face" blowsiness that must have been such a shock to its first audience, an echo of which we can hear in their recordings. They also deliver the primeval elements of the movement, all that dirty bass-end grumbling and shuddering, that must also have come as such a shock to the first audiences.

It is very hard many decades after a first performance to try to gauge the effect a piece of music first had on its audiences. When something has become so familiar, loved, venerated, to try to imagine "the shock of the new" that must have seized people at the time is a tall order indeed. But it is an idea we should try to bear in mind if we can and so should the performer. When Mahler wrote his Third Symphony he was a young man wanting to make a very big noise in the world, to try to shake people out of complacency. In the first movement it has always seemed to me that Mahler was saying to his audience, to use modern slang, "Eat my score!" and any performance of the piece that falls short of giving an impression of that attitude on his part is not trying hard enough. Or at least is trying too hard to be accepted in now more polite circles. Andrew Litton on Delos (DE 3248) is especially culpable in this respect sounding positively embarrassed by the music’s implications.

The climax to the march’s first procession (347-368) where the massed horns roar to the skies comes off very well under Abbado because here is a horn section that can be both powerful and retain great beauty of tone. But again the previous versions I mentioned manage it better because they seem not to care how bold or crude they sound here. The development then begins with that lyrical, golden music Abbado gives with even more warmth than before, allowing him to then segue effortlessly into the return of the march where the battle between good and evil that Schoenberg so perceptively noted can really be enacted. Notice here the Berlin double basses’ precision and the woodwinds’ shrieks. Let me assure you that nowhere does Abbado’s modernist soul allow him to smooth out or prettify Mahler . He may not be as rude, bumptious or "bad mannered" as Barbirolli, Kubelik or Horenstein are but I’m sure he is of that family of interpreters at least. The "battle of the marches" (530-642) is suitably exciting with the impression of forces champing at the bit to be released and I think the fact that this is a "live" performance helps here, but listen to Barbirolli for the most vivid evocation of this passage. From recapitulation to coda we are taken in one grand arch but there is a real lean towards the grandeur of the music under Abbado - a "grandstand" end to the extraordinary musical events we have just heard which begins even in the solo trombone (disgracefully uncredited, by the way). Then when the coda swells to its massive climax, broad and with plenty of space, Abbado’s expansive approach is capped and justified though I personally prefer Horenstein at the very end for the way the final brass swells are carefully graded by him so effectively.

In all, the first movement works well and certainly holds the attention across its immense span because Abbado has the belief written through his interpretation that you cannot and should not try to contain this music. That it must be allowed to almost overwhelm us in its variety, scope and range. Others are even more effective here, I think, but Abbado is mightily impressive for all that. He is also blessed with an orchestra that is on top of the movement’s demands even under these concert hall conditions and seems to respond to that challenge. As I have indicated, though, Abbado’s version is missing the last few ounces of earthy effrontery so triumphantly shown by Barbirolli, Horenstein or Kubelik. But here is a performance of the first movement still within what I consider to be the compass of performance this symphony needs and is so crucial. If the conductor and orchestra get the first movement wrong in any way the rest of the symphony is doomed no matter how well it’s done. Mahler Thirds stand or fall by how the first movement fares and here it fares very well and where recorded sound and orchestral playing is concerned it approaches the greatest.

Sometimes the second movement can rather get lost after the first. So short and so slight after what has gone, it needs special care for the audience’s attention to be maintained at that point. Abbado appreciates the importance of the movement and so makes it memorable by paying it the same attention to detail he has to the first. He sets out the five-part structure very particularly. He also achieves by his colouring of the winds the important fact that whilst the flowers that are being portrayed in this movement can smell nice they can also sting. Something also achieved by Barbirolli even though his Hallé Orchestra is not in the same technical class. The playing of the Berliners is again beyond praise in giving pin-sharp ensemble and great beauty of tone, shifting and darting between the various episodes, responding to Abbado’s little dabs of colour and to his minute, but so telling, changes of tempo. All of which are carried over to the third movement which Abbado, quite rightly, sees as the next step up the level of ascent he has now set himself upon and seems to grow naturally out of what has just gone. Under him this movement manages to be both energetic and lyrical at turns and pretty well covers all bases, though Barbirolli, Horenstein and Kubelik yet again take the more raucous passages even further than Abbado who holds them in by comparison. I also feel the crucial posthorn sections, that most evocative sound in all Mahler, whilst admirably played and positioned in the sound picture are a little stiff especially when compared with Horenstein’s soloist, Willie Lang, who is given a flugel horn to play rather than his trumpet.

In the fourth movement Anna Larsson is superb in her delivery of Mahler’s night song to Nietzsche’s "O Mensch!". Dark and commanding, she is more effective than the too-operatic Jessye Norman in Abbado’s earlier recording is. Since his first recording Abbado also has come over to the school of thought that believes the oboe soloist (and later cor anglais) should interpret Mahler’s hinaufziehen marking in the solos as an upward glissando. If you have only heard this played in most other recordings it will come as quite a shock here. Rattle (EMI CDS5566572) and Gielen (Hänssler Classics CD 93.017) are also of the same persuasion in their recordings. (As too was the late Berthold Goldschmidt in a 1960 BBC broadcast performance with the Philharmonia that has gone into legend and from whom Simon Rattle learned it.) I know I am not alone in still making up my mind as to the accuracy of this reading of Mahler’s marking or indeed its appropriateness. As ever, Mahler is still posing questions for conductors and listeners. However, it’s certainly distinctive and thank goodness Abbado’s players are a little more discreet in their delivery of it than Rattle’s.

The two local choirs sing well in the fifth movement but there is some attack missing from the children who are not helped by their backward balancing. The boys on the Horenstein and Barbirolli recordings are more the cheeky urchins I am convinced Mahler had in mind and provide a more jarring counterpoint to the singing of the soloist than Abbado’s do for Larsson. That said, Abbado does catch the feeling of a fresh day awakening. The symphony demands here and provides a fine prelude to Abbado’s delivery of the great last movement. Just when you thought this performance couldn’t get any better, it does. The last movement has all the concentration of chamber music playing in a noble and spiritual reading that grows in emotion and warmth and it progresses. Notice especially how in the later pages Abbado manages to correctly recall moods from the first movement, binding the vast structure together prior to an ending that is uplifting and focussed - pulling on the heartstrings but never in danger of snapping them. The enthusiastic applause from the full house at the end is given an extra track on the disc so you can programme them out if you want. In fact both discs are copiously tracked with eighteen entry points, eight of them in the first movement. There are also excellent English notes by Donald Mitchell.

I mentioned earlier that the DG engineers appear to have remastered the sound somewhat. The reason I believe this is that normally broadcasts from the Royal Festival Hall by the BBC reflect that venue’s very bright and clear acoustic and that is my recollection of the original broadcast. Now on CD the sound is spatially very wide with impressive left/right and front/back spread and, crucially, much more air around the sound than we are used to in this hall. This must have been added afterwards though it has been done quite discreetly. Instrumental detail is still very clear but I do wonder whether some of the impact of certain passages may have been better left as this hall usually delivers them to microphones. Dynamic range is wide but comfortable and largely believable. The effect is like sitting in a seat quite far back in the hall and contributes to the concert hall atmosphere. I suspect some state-of-the-art equipment might show up more a degree of limiting at climaxes but this should only bother the hi-fi enthusiasts. It was fascinating to compare the sound on this recording with that of the Kubelik’s also on DG. The sound on that is the absolute opposite with very little spatial effect and the instruments almost in your lap. Not an ideal balance but fully consistent with the Kubelik studio cycle and very revealing to listen to.

Kubelik, Barbirolli and Horenstein remain my preferred versions for this symphony for the reasons already outlined, along with Bernstein on Sony. I remain especially attached to Barbirolli’s wonderful version (for me the finest Mahler he has left us) and for a detailed explanation as to why let me refer you to my Mahler recordings survey covering this particular symphony where I go into detail. (I was not surprised when an international jury of music critics at the Mahlerwoche in Toblach gave Barbirolli’s recording the award for best stereo Mahler recording of 1999.) In my survey I also go into detail about the Horenstein recording which can now be bought as part of the cheap Brilliant Classics Mahler set for about the same price as the old Unicorn release. I did not include the Kubelik DG version in my survey because it is only available as part of his complete cycle. However I reviewed that cycle separately and I refer you to that article for some thoughts on Kubelik’s superb studio version. There is now a "live" version from Kubelik just out on the Audite label. I haven’t heard that yet but since it was recorded in concert very close indeed to the making of the studio version I don’t think I am stretching things in expecting it to be very similar and with the added advantage of being taken "live." I do look forward to hearing it

Which now leaves me to place Abbado’s new version in the firmament of Mahler Third recordings. My three preferred versions have drawbacks in terms of sound recording and orchestral playing. The Kubelik is too closely recorded; the Barbirolli does not have the orchestral precision and tone of many other versions even though the Hallé plays the work better than most of them in every other aspect. The Horenstein recording whilst well-played lacks a little in the bass response of the recording. None of that matters very much to me, but it may to some of you, so I’m glad I can warmly recommend this new Abbado recording as a first-rate alternative to them. In terms of interpretation Abbado comes close to his three older colleagues whilst not quite equalling them. In terms of playing he has an orchestra that, while in comparison lacks the sense of danger and abandon in the "shock of the new" passages, is beyond praise. Countless details of their response to their conductor delight the ear and they can seem to respond to every small detail of his interpretation. There are other modern versions of this work worthy of mention, of course. Bernstein’s second recording especially (DG 4273282) and also Rattle’s (EMI CDS5566572) and Tennstedt’s (EMI 5742962). But I’m happy to let Abbado’s new recording be an excellent modern recommendation for those who want to balance sound, performance and sense of occasion which I believe adds so much to this recording and is something we hear all too seldom.

Highly recommended as an all-round choice for Mahler’s most expansive work.

Tony Duggan

Tony Duggan's Mahler pages may be found here


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