Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900) [58:44]
Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902) [20:40]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. 21-22 August 2009, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne, Switzerland
Director: Michael Beyer
Picture format: 16:9/NTSC
Sound: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German
No text or translation included
EUROARTS 2057988 [79:24]

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 either.

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 (review). 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 exaggerated phrasing.

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.

Dan Morgan

A must-have for all Mahlerians.