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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (1905)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Director: Michael Beyer
rec. live, Concert Hall of the Culture and Convention Centre Lucerne, 10 August 2006
Region: 0; PAL; Sound Formats: PCM Stereo • Dolby Digital 5.1 • DTS 5.1
Booklet Notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS 2055649 [89:00]



The Lucerne Festival Orchestra isn't any ordinary orchestra. It's an ensemble made up of the finest players in Europe, many of them big names on their own, but this is no rock star type line-up. What makes an orchestra is the players’ ability to interact in ensemble. Many of these musicians play together regularly at Lucerne but not always in the same combination. The mixture seems to ignite because the atmosphere, at Lucerne, is electric. These are players who can achieve with chamber-like intimacy, yet understand their role in the broad sweep of orchestral perspective. In Mahler's own time, orchestral standards were not as high as they are now, and the music relatively unfamiliar. Musicianship like this shows just how visionary Mahler was, for players like these are so technically assured that they can focus on the spirit of the music. The more we know Mahler, the more, perhaps, we can appreciate the intelligence and complexity in his music. 

The joy of this DVD is that we can watch the orchestra interact as they play. We can see the body language, and the little flashes of unconscious communication. Indeed, because the camera can close-up on Abbado's face and hands, we can see more on film than we might in the amphitheatre: it's more like being among the musicians, seeing and hearing what they hear while they are in the process of playing. It really does add to the experience when you can watch the musicians as they play. You can see the string players’ individual fingering and understand how it affects the sound they make. It's fascinating to watch how the wind-players move, how their muscles and deftness of touch affect what they do. Most of us get our music via recordings, so it's all too easy to think of music in terms of technical values. Yet, without musicians, there'd “be” no music. Music existed long before recording. Films like this are an important reminder that it is fundamentally a human and creative process. 

The filming here is musically informed. These cameramen know the music well, so they know what to pick up on and when. It's almost as if they are part of the process because they reveal telling details within the whole. For example, there is a close-up of the triangle being beaten. It's a humble instrument, easily lost in the mass, but this film emphasises its significance in creating the “Alpine motif”, for it extends the sounds of cowbells. It might even evoke the ticking of a clock, a reasonable image, given the possible meaning of this symphony. Mahler as orchestral colourist knew what he was doing, and this film director understood. This sort of musical sensitivity shows just how far the filming of music has progressed over the years. This is a valuable recording because it “is” filmed, and by people who know the music. 

Freed of technical limitations, Abbado can rely on the response of his players, as artists, to achieve this interpretation. It's certainly different, for what he emphasises is the lucidity in the score, without exaggerating the excessive “emotionalism” that some performances fall back on. This is not to say that Abbado isn't emotional – far from it – but the quality of emotion is directed towards a specific purpose. Abbado's Mahler recognises the advances we've had in understanding Mahler over the last few years and takes its cue from the score in that light. For Mahler awareness of death enhanced his love of life. Abbado himself knows only too well how the hammer-blows of fate can suddenly strike people down, so, perhaps, like Mahler, the life-enhancing aspects of the music mean all the more. From time to time, Abbado bursts into beaming smiles, if only to acknowledge his appreciation of what his players are doing. But make no mistake, these smiles have been hard-won. 

However, as Donald Mitchell, in an essay reprinted in ‘Discovering Mahler’ (Boydell, 2007) says, “it is the Sixth alone among all Mahler's symphonies and song-cycles in which death triumphs”. That's why I approached this performance with some trepidation, although I love the transcendence with which Abbado infuses the Second, Third and even the Ninth Symphonies. The relative lack of grim fatalism is compensated by some particularly vivid string playing where the “finger of death” seems almost palpable. Horror doesn't “have” to be heavy-handed. These icy strings are definitely chilling, almost shrill in their intensity. The Lucerne hammer-blows may not knock you out of your seat, but you don't need to be reminded, if you've been listening to how Abbado has built up the tension. And as Mitchell also notes, Mahler is “imagining” death, rather than building a case in its favour, so Abbado's approach isn't out of line. 

At the end of the performance, the camera pans again over the audience, lingering for a moment on two musicians who have been closely associated with Abbado for many years, Daniel Harding and Thomas Quasthoff. In the UK, much has been made of Harding's early years with Rattle, but it is in fact Abbado with whom he has had the more important relationship. The various orchestras Abbado has formed are extremely important to him, and to his vision of musicianship. It is extremely significant that since 1998, he's had Harding at the helm of his Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is intricately related to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Abbado's own “system” of connected orchestras. With conductors like Abbado and Boulez, I do believe we are on the verge of a deeper understanding of Mahler's work. Like all things new, it will take time before the impact is fully absorbed, but it is important, I think, to appreciate that there are many ways to approach Mahler, some of which we haven't even started to comprehend.

I'll probably go back to Abbado's audio recording of the Sixth with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for regular listening, but this film is a very valuable contribution to ”how” we listen to Mahler. There may be more striking performances, but this is special because it is a film, and sheds a uniquely sensitive light on the musicianship that makes music possible.

Anne Ozorio



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