Introducing Masterpieces of Classical Music
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1903) [67:00]
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. 2004, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne, Switzerland
Documentary presented by Jeremy Barham [27:00]
Directors: Michael Beyer (concert), Angelika Stiehler (documentary)
Picture format: 16:9/NTSC
Sound: LPCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Languages: English, French, German, Spanish
EUROARTS 2056178 [95:00]

Mahlerians will recognise that this is not a new performance, but what is new is Euroarts’ decision to repackage some of their earlier releases with supporting documentaries. Anyone familiar with the bonus items normally tacked on to these discs will know how variable they can be; this time, though, the jacket blurb promises us something more substantial, an ‘insightful documentary’ presented by the ‘well-known scholar’ Jeremy Barham. A senior lecturer at the University of Surrey, Barham is indeed a Mahler specialist – his PhD was on the composer’s Third Symphony and, in addition to other writings, he’s contributed a chapter to OUP’s The Mahler Companion.

This bodes well for the 27-minute documentary which, as it’s the disc’s USP, is where we should begin. Initially my heart sank, as narrator Dulcie Smart’s opening words are rendered all but inaudible by music from the performance itself. Barham comes to the rescue after about two minutes, only to be replaced by more music, scenic pans and swamped voice-overs. Alas, this style of documentary making is all too prevalent these days, serious content subsumed by the exterior gloss one associates with coffee-table books that look good but which no-one ever seems to read.

If you can’t abide these sight- and sound-bites – the tricksy visuals pass in the blink of an eye – just skip to chapter 2, entitled ‘Part 1’, which is about the symphony itself. At last we can escape the anodyne commentary and well-worn anecdotes and get to the heart of the music. But no; the absurd balance means the eruptive start to the first movement – superbly captured, by the way – obliterates the narration once again. At least Barham’s contributions – filmed with him talking to an off-camera interviewer – are clear and uncluttered. He uses the piano to highlight musical motifs – the triplets of the opening fanfare, for instance, which he aptly characterises as a memento mori. Helpfully, relevant sections of the score are presented on screen, which is a nice touch.

As if to emphasise the annoying disjunction of style and content in this documentary, the second movement’s title ‘Stürmisch bewegt’ is superimposed over a shot of the calm waters of the Wörthersee. Hardly indicative of what Barham calls a ‘mood of restless urgency’. That said, his contributions are always cogent and interesting, backed up with musical examples played on the piano; one pleasing visual touch is the way these snippets fade out and are taken up by the orchestra. I really wish the narrator’s bridging comments/interjections had ended up on the cutting-room floor, as they’re so much at odds with Barham’s unfussy presentational style. Indeed, in the section on the Scherzo the narration embroiders on the presenter’s earlier comments. For heaven’s sake, why?

Another distraction – albeit a minor one – is the use of what sounds like mid-Atlantic voices for the male voice-overs. Quite different from Dulcie Smart’s cool, uninflected tones. And what’s the point of talking about polyphony and counterpoint in relation to the Scherzo without explaining what the terms actually mean? It’s easily done, as Barham demonstrates in his explanation of the suspension – or appoggiatura – in the Adagietto.

One of the beauties of multi-cued DVDs and Blu-rays is that you can skip the bits you don’t like. Trouble is, the success of this repackaged DVD is predicated on the idea that consumers will buy it for the added extras. Generally I find these bonus tracks to be of peripheral interest only, but Barham’s quiet, scholarly illustrations are very worthwhile indeed. What a pity we couldn’t have had more in-depth analysis and musical examples, rather than vapid visuals and redundant narratives..

And now for the performance itself. Claudio Abbado’s much-praised Mahler cycle with his hand-picked Lucerne orchestra is almost complete. And what a journey it’s been, made all the more poignant – and compelling – by the maestro’s battle with cancer. That said, his gaunt features are transformed once he’s on the podium, shaking his fist at the raging storm as it were. The fanfare and aural earthquake at the start of the symphony have seldom sounded more seismic, the dynamics so wide. And that’s pretty much what this Mahler Fifth is all about, huge emotional swings essayed with superhuman strength by this remarkable maestro and band.

Abbado is a master of the long span, the inner workings of the first movement laid bare by his forensic probing. The agitated chatter and jabbing rhythms of the second movement are as arresting as I’ve ever heard them, the ensuing music a welcome shelter from the elements. What really impresses me about Abbado’s Mahler – this latest cycle especially – is the sheer logic of his readings; these are lean performances, without superfluous gesture or expressive underlining, and the results are enthralling.

The DVD picture clear, the camerawork unobtrusive, and the sound – in its stereo PCM form at least – is very good indeed. The weight and amplitude of this symphony really does call for all the dynamic range the engineers can muster, and I’m delighted to say that’s exactly what they deliver. There’s warmth and detail as well, especially in the delectable Ländler and pin-sharp pizzicati of the Scherzo, not to mention the honeyed string sounds of the Adagietto. There’s no dewy-eyed sentimentality here, the music most naturally paced and phrased.

But it’s the Rondo-Finale that takes one’s breath away; from its deceptively gentle opening through to that crowning chorale – it’s seldom sounded so shattering, so blazingly affirmative – this is music-making of the highest order. The Lucerne band performs like the finely engineered instrument it is, and I seriously doubt this music could be played with more authority and commitment than it is here. And lest it seem I’ve lost my critical marbles, I haven’t warmed to everything Abbado has done in Lucerne. For instance, his ‘Resurrection’ was much less visionary than I’d hoped, but then his various CD versions of this work aren’t among the best in the catalogue either.

If you’re new to Mahler and/or this symphony then this DVD is a must-buy, if only for the performance. As for seasoned Mahlerians – and those who already own the original release – this ‘insightful documentary’ adds precious little to the original package.

Dan Morgan

If you’re new to Mahler and/or this symphony then this DVD is a must-buy.