Schubert sonatas

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.5 (1902)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
SACD Hybrid Stereo/Multi-channel (reviewed in multichannel but see below) a PCM 24/44.1 5.1 channel recording recorded May 1993 in the Phiharmonie, Berlin and remastered for multichannel at Emil Berliner Studios 2004. Playable on all CD and SACD players.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 071 2 [44.48 + 24.44]

Well here’s a how-di-do, as Gilbert said. This issue is full of fascinating twists and turns and raises one or two unanswerable questions unless one had been in on both the original sessions and the remixing session in the studio in 2004.

The performance is very beautiful, stunningly well played, and absolutely full of Mahlerian pathos and angst. Not too much of the latter and just enough of the former. The Trauermarsch is as weary as could be and rightly so. This is indeed played "with measured tread, austere, like a funeral cortège" just as Mahler instructs. There is a palpable desperation about it that is very touching. Unfortunately Abbado is not sufficiently "violently agitated" in the second movement to provide my ideal contrast. His other weakness is the Rondo-Finale where it seems to me that he lacks the tension generated by such as Rattle (EMI DVD 7243 4 90325 9 0) or Kubelik (DG CD not currently separately available). Abbado’s Rondo is just that bit too measured and I miss that sense of wildness and sheer weirdness that others have shown to be inherent in this extraordinary movement. There is no sense in which the performance is bad, that would be an insult to a great Mahlerian. If you do not know the symphony, and this is your first recording of it, you will be enraptured and will never lose your taste for the work. I, like many critics, have so many recordings of the 5th that I keep thinking about the good aspects of the other ten recordings I own. For me, overall, Abbado just does not quite measure up. If I were to encapsulate what is missing it would definitely be that sense of the phantasmagoric that was captured so well by Hermann Scherchen back in 1953 (MCA MCD80081).

Most readers are not that sort of Mahler "nut", so should this be your purchase? I regret not. In many respects the reasons are technical. This is not a DSD recording, it is PCM 24 bit/44.1 kHz. It was originally recorded in 1993 and issued that year on Deutsche Grammophon 437 789-2 on a single 69 minute CD. This present issue is a remix for 5.1 surround from the original (I assume) multi-track master and it does not convince. Somehow the balance has been changed and seems to throw the orchestra left, allow the brass to recess back, and there is almost no ambience. When the applause comes in at the end it is around you, so there probably were microphones out in the auditorium. In 1993 no one was focused on surround but were recording for 2-channel stereo. I can only guess, but I doubt that the multi-track tape was well suited for surround and I think the re-mix has spoiled the recording. I tried listening to the CD Stereo layer and it is much clearer and better balanced and has more impact. If it is surround impact you want then turn to Simon Rattle, also with the BPO, on EMI DVD Audio. Wow! That performance is, I think, better, and the recording just knocks this one out of contention. As if that were not enough, DG has reissued Abbado on two SACDs instead of one, why? I have no idea. I really cannot think of any reason at all; perhaps DG would enlighten us. Edward Seckerson liked this performance in his original Gramophone review 12/93; The Penguin Guide (Layton and Greenfield) says: "the dramatic tensions of a concert performance vividly captured. … excellent sound … Abbado at his peak," so I think I would seek out the single CD and not bother with this odd remastering. For a first class performance I personally would go to Barbirolli on EMI (CDM5669102) or Inbal on whatever label is currently holding his Denon original master tape.

Dave Billinge

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