Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Mahler performances have become a legend
in their own lifetime. Rightly so, as the conductor and his
hand-picked orchestra are probably the most accomplished musical
partnership on the planet. The cycle is not yet complete and
already Euroarts has released a box set of Symphonies 1-7 on
Blu-ray. The latter has the benefit of high-definition visuals
and sound, but the cheaper DVDs are of the highest quality too.
The camerawork in this series is a model of its kind - discreet
and unfussy - and the lack of ‘bonus’ tracks is a plus as far
as I’m concerned. The recent reissue of the Mahler 5 with an
introductory video – review
– is a case in point; such add-ons rarely add much value.
The disc starts with the Rückert-Lieder, sung by the
white-gowned mezzo Magdalena Kožená. Hers is a light voice,
pure of line and capable of some lovely floated notes. In Liebst
du um Schönheit she adopts a slightly hectoring style, complete
with widened eyes, that’s a tad distracting. Predictably, though,
the Lucerners sound splendid in this most luminous of scores;
as for maestro Abbado, his gestures are as economical as ever.
The burbling start to Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
is nicely done, but Kožená’s pale tones – some might call them
colourless – are clearly an acquired taste. In Um Mitternacht,
especially, one longs for the subtle shading of Baker or
Ludwig; that said, Kožená sounds more sheerly beautiful than
And that’s my only quibble; there’s a heightened sensitivity
in Mahler’s score, where even the smallest change of colour
or dynamic is freighted with intent, and that surely requires
an equally subtle and nuanced vocalist. That said, Kožená’s
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft has a limpid beauty that,
like Rückert’s scent of love, is impossible to resist. As for
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen it’s the orchestra
that catches one’s ear, this fragile music appearing to tremble
on the very edge of extinction. Here it’s indescribably beautiful,
a deep spell that’s only broken after a long, appreciative silence.
What a relief, no oiks screeching ‘bravo’ on the last note.
Before we launch into the Fourth Symphony, I must confess to
some trepidation. There’s no doubt Abbado’s Lucerne Mahler is
as good as it’s ever likely to get, but there have been times
when I’ve wondered whether this maestro’s own battle with mortality
overloads the music. The Fifth and later symphonies can take
that extra weight, but I’m not sure the earlier, so-called Wunderhorn
ones, can do the same. The Fourth certainly benefits from a
lightness of touch, its aerated textures especially suited to
a virtuoso band such as this. Indeed, the ‘hear-through’ sound
of the Rückert -Lieder bodes well for what follows.
And so it proves, the opening of the first movement as sun-flecked
and easygoing as one could wish for. It’s all played pretty
straight, without that self-indulgent swoop and swoon that so
easily disrupts the Mahlerian line. There’s also an almost forensic
quality to the sound that trumps most CDs of this work, so I
can only wonder at the improvement high-res Blu-rays claim to
offer. In PCM stereo at least the soundstage is both deep and
broad, timps crisp and authoritative, massed strings bright
without ever being steely.
Abbado isn’t inclined to dawdle, the end of this movement sounding
as clear-eyed and emphatic as ever. The ‘wie an Fiedel’ of the
Totentanz movement may not be as unsettling as some,
but it’s still superbly done, plucked strings – like the video
picture – pin-sharp throughout. Indeed, Abbado’s no-nonsense
reading reminds me of Klaus Tennstedt’s BBC Legends Mahler First,
which also benefits enormously from a taut, unsentimental approach
Shorn of excess, Mahler’s chamber-like scoring is laid bare
in the most natural and convincing way, so much so that one
seems to be hearing these familiar scores as if for the first
time. Just sample that nodal point at 46:55, where the music
broadens naturally, without recourse to unnecessary pauses or
But it’s the adagio that s most captivating, the Lucerners infusing
this music with a penetrating warmth; it’s a remarkable sleight
of hand, for rhythms are neither sluggish nor the mood dewy-eyed.
It’s a seamless performance, the tiniest of details heard as
never before; the music-making is little short of superhuman,
but it certainly isn’t short of emotional intensity, the final
peroration and postlude – if one can all it that – as magnificent
as I’ve ever heard them. And just when I’ve run out of superlatives
there’s the child-heaven finale, with Kožená in silvery voice.
She’s always clear and crisp, which dovetails nicely with Abbado’s
brightly-lit uplands; but, and it’s a very small but, I did
find this movement a little lacking in charm.
I cannot end on a caveat; this is an impressive disc, a high
water mark in the history of Mahler recordings in general and
this symphony in particular. Refreshing, renewing, remarkable
– a must-have for all Mahlerians.
Masterwork Index: Rückert-Lieder Symphony