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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 Resurrection
Eteri Gvazava, soprano, Anna Larsson, contralto
Orfeón Donostiarra
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La mer

Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recorded live at the Lucerne Festival, Summer 2003
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5082 [45’01 + 60’29]

Although the musical partnership between the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Claudio Abbado is a little over a year old much is being made of it – and rightly so. This is the first official CD – excepting the Lucerne Festival’s own one – to capture the orchestra; two DVDs have also been released. Hearing them live this year at the opening concert of the 2004 Festival in a magnificent performance of Act II from Tristan und Isolde only confirms what an exceptional orchestra this is. It can only be to everyone’s benefit that its concerts with Abbado are being captured for posterity. This disc takes two performances from the 2003 Festival – the La mer from the opening concert (which was coupled with Wotan’s ‘Farewell’ from Walküre and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien) and a concert from a couple of days later of Mahler’s Second Symphony. There were, in fact, two performances given of the Mahler and the booklet note only dates them as being from 19th and 20th August. Having lived with the radio broadcast of this extraordinary performance for the past year the performance replicated by DG here is of the first of those two concerts.

Recent Abbado could be said to reflect this conductor’s Indian Summer. As Albrecht Mayer, the principal oboe of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, told me last week, Abbado looks at every day as being quite possibly his last and his music-making is increasingly a reflection of this. Whilst Abbado has conducted much Debussy, he has never actually set La mer down on disc but the performance we have here is stunning. You have to go back many years to find a combination of colour and individuality in the playing to match what the Lucerne Orchestra reproduce here; indeed for sheer artistry only Guido Cantelli’s Philharmonia recording from the 1950s really begins to compare with it. In part, Abbado’s success in this work is because he encourages his players to listen to each other as they would when playing chamber music, or opera. Each soloist – and the orchestra has the cream of today’s players – Emmanuel Pahud on the flute, Albrecht Mayer on the oboe and Sabine Meyer on clarinet, for example – plays with such attention to dynamics that at times it is like hearing this score being played for the first time. Abbado himself is at times super-charged (his Mahler Fifth from this year’s festival was literally torn from the score) and that adds an incandescence to a performance already dripping with the purest artistic integrity.

The performance of Mahler’s Second is also a revelation. Recalling perhaps most closely a superlative Mahler Second which Abbado gave with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1968 (and available occasionally on unofficial labels) it has a searing quality that is largely missing from the two performances he recorded for DG earlier in his career. It is not that Abbado has radically rethought the work – he eschews, for example, any of the changes introduced into the new Kaplan edition - it is rather that the flaws which mar his other recordings (notably a slackness of pace) are here almost entirely overwritten. What is notable about this latest performance is its tension – at times quite unyielding – and the enormous span over which Abbado is able to sustain it. Tempi are markedly different than earlier – the second movement moves with much more alacrity (some may find it too brisk) – and the power which he brings to the final movement is compressed and cumulative. In short, this is a supremely well balanced reading. This is also a performance that rages like a furnace – climaxes are constantly ignited by fire – and one that has natural and unforced spontaneity to it. So secure is the playing – and this is one of the best played performances of any Mahler symphony you will hear – that Abbado is able to concentrate on mastering the evolution of the symphony without having to focus on matters of ensemble. To paraphrase Albrecht Mayer again, this was a performance where both orchestra and conductor were unified in their conception of the work.

Some (most) performances on record benefit from a detailed dissection of how a conductor shapes each movement, but Abbado’s Mahler Second is one of the rare examples of a performance that should be listened to, and written about, in its entirety rather than critically taken apart. This is a visionary performance that from the savagery of the opening movement’s ’cellos and basses (and they are absolutely thrillingly played) to the power and apotheosis of the vast finale’s closing pages has a single unbroken thread running through it. One could point out numerous individual instances – the ‘humming’ strings at Fig 5 in the first movement, the perfect glissandi at Fig 23 in the Ländler, the apocalyptic crescendo at Fig 50 in the third movement, the unhidden – and unabashed - terror at Fig 8 after the final movement’s opening explosion – that separate this performance from others. However what one is constantly aware of throughout the trajectory of this reading is what Mahler himself thought when he heard the symphony: ‘One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.’ Both Abbado’s soloists and chorus are equal partners in helping to achieve this.

The KKL concert hall in Lucerne – one of the most magnificent in the world - provides almost the ideal ambience in which to record this symphony and DG’s recording is indeed full bodied and unrestricted. Climaxes are natural and focused. Depth of sound and transparency of texture are cleanly heard. They add bloom to performances that are second to none and make this one of the most remarkable discs of either work to acquire.

Marc Bridle

La Mer is available on DVD - see review by John Phillips (an August Recording of the Month)

Comment received

Last month Marc Bridle reviewed a new Mahler sym 2 with Abaddo in Lucerne. Mahler strikes different reactions in different people, and I'd like to voice my thoughts. I've always found Abaddo rather cool and clinical; his recordings usually seem to be missing something. The Abaddo/Lucerne M2 is basically a good performance and there's a lot to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are a few problems that detract from it. The first movement seems too comfortable and doesn't make a big impact on the listener as a great performance does, despite a flowing tempo (actually, all of Abaddo's tempos are quick). The brass section is a little too reticent and it's hard to hear the tuba. It would also help if the timpani were louder and more discernible, which are too polite much of the time. The tapping of the bows - where the strings tap their bows - is almost inaudible. The inner movements are very good, breezy & straight forward but with little charm. We get excellent singing from the contralto in IV, but more problems crop up in the last movement. The off stage instruments are too far away, almost inaudible. Some may prefer that but I like to hear it a little easier. At other times the horns seem to be recessed somewhat. Also, the organ is practically inaudible at the end. This performance left me feeling that something was missing.

That missing something is supplied in the new Tilson Thomas M2 (just released); a very different type of performance. Tempos are slower but the timpani and brass are more prevalent, creating a greater impact. What horns! MTT tends to hold the notes a bit
longer and uses more rubato, letting the music register and breathe, whereas Abaddo is brief, always moving forward. MTT also has excellent singers and chorus and his finale is overwhelming. The off stage instruments are perfect and you can hear the organ at the end. Each of these Mahler recordings has its advantages and drawbacks. Abaddo gives us a taut "just the facts" performance; MTT lives every moment, exaggerating things a bit but making big points and providing big rewards. In this work I prefer San Francisco, a truly great orchestra.

P. Weber

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