Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphonies Nos. 1 to 7
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C major Op.26
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Eteri Gvazava (soprano) (No.2)
Anna Larsson (contralto) (No.2, No.3)
Magdalena Kozena (mezzo) (No.4, Lieder)
Orfeon Donostiarra (chorus) (No.2)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir (No.3)
Tolzer Knabenchor (No.3)
Yuja Wang (piano)
rec. live, Concert Hall of the Culture and Convention Centre, Lucerne, Switzerland: 2003-2009
Video: 1080i 16:9 Sound DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM Stereo
The review is of the DTS-HD tracks
EUROARTS BLU-RAY 2058574 [4 discs: 610:00]
Some, if not all, of these recordings are reissues and re-couplings. This is why there is an odd, and unremarkable, Prokofiev Piano Concerto in the box, plus a reference to René Fleming as a soloist when she doesn't appear anywhere here. The final two symphonies have yet to be performed at Lucerne, No.9 is the 2011 offering I believe, so this is not the final word on Abbado's Mahler.
As video recordings there is nothing better on the market at this time. A single moan: the menus have those irritating musical snippets that inevitably repeat as one struggles to set the sound-track and any subtitle languages. Silent menus please Euroarts, this is music, not some Hollywood film! The music starts when the performance starts and not before. Moan over.
The camera work manages to be unobtrusive and yet informative, both of Abbado's conducting style and of this remarkable orchestra's personalities and musicianship - the post-performance embracing speaks volumes about the friendship and mutual respect of this band. There is no time-filling commentary to disturb the viewer: a major disadvantage of, for example, BBC Proms broadcasts. The concerts are greeted by regular standing ovations and we are allowed to enjoy them to the full because the films do not cut away to irrelevant chatter, again as above. The sound is little short of magnificent. Doubtless the day will come when still better sound is available in the domestic environment but until that happens these DTS Master Audio 5.1 tracks rule the roost. No one will imagine they are actually present but one can easily suspend disbelief. As a substitute for spending up to £260 per seat per symphony this will do; thank you Euroarts.
As for Abbado's approach to Mahler, it is accepted by most that with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra he has achieved both technical and emotional insight something done by very few, if any, other current conductors. Bernstein was perhaps the first recording artist to stand astride the Mahler Symphonies back in the 1960s and 1970s and to exhibit the same insight into the kaleidoscopic emotional world of Mahler. Hearing his many recorded performances is still a very worthwhile experience now. Plenty of others deserve mention, Haitink, Klemperer, Walter all in that period and I am sure readers will add their own favourites. The current competition at this level of recording excellence is Michael Tilson-Thomas whose San Francisco recordings are equally good in sound. Fortunately we do not need to choose, we can have all these recordings. Abbado's Lucerne set is not yet complete and he too will probably not do any of the performing versions of number 10. For me Abbado offers a remarkable subtlety, these are not the loudest performances, indeed they are often the quietest where that is required, but they do encompass the whole gamut of effects demanded by the composer. Only in No.6 did I feel he was not fully engaged throughout but that is merely to give him 9 out of 10 instead of 10 and should not put off potential purchasers. No.7 is a difficult work to bring off because even by Mahler's standards it is an eccentric patchwork. Bernstein managed it well and Abbado achieves a still more convincing result. This set is as good as it gets. It is worth asking why this is so and I would offer two reasons, first these are live performances, I would add 'warts and all' but the LFO doesn't do warts! Second I suspect that the engineers have completely 'got' this hall and have felt no need to do much by way of post-concert rebalancing for Blu-ray. The HD pictures show remarkably few microphones and that must help because there seems to be an inverse relationship between number of microphones and sound quality.
Finally some details.
Symphony No.1: the sound here bleeds a little from the rear speakers, which should not happen. The performance has a huge sweep to it and a great deal of rhythmic subtlety. The first movement feels like a vast creation myth - all the lines are perfectly delineated - phenomenal playing. In the second movement dance elements sweep all before with playing of breathtaking unanimity. The 3rd movement is slower than usual and that makes for darker and sadder music and huge tension. The Klezmer rhythms come over startlingly well and enrich the emotional soundscape. The threads of dance, song and of funeral march are melded into a perfect whole. The huge opening climax of the finale has the volume and transparency that Abbado and the LFO have made their calling card. The violins can be seen watching the rest of the string section closely during their rests such is the involvement they show. Abbado never allows the percussion to overwhelm the orchestra but terraces the sound to provide perfect clarity. The return to the opening of the work comes as a reminder of innocence lost before the finale outburst.
Symphony No.2: the first movement has lower tension than the rest, though by 10 minutes in the electricity is returning and all is well. The second movement is totally involving with the many melodies providing solo opportunities for this elite band. It is often said that the sign of a great orchestra is how quietly they can play, in this respect the LFO have no match. The third movement is of course just the start of a huge continuous build up, its mixture of the bucolic and the tense perfectly brought out by extremely flexible tempi. Anna Larsson is a magnificent soloist in Urlicht and her final pianissimo pulls one in, making the perfectly unanimous string crescendo of the 5th movement startlingly dramatic. Mahler invented the music of 'epic' that has fascinated film composers ever since and as a result of calm and steady development this performance is as impressive as any I have heard. The quiet choral entry is wonderful. This chorus sing without music, just as Abbado conducts. The closing brings tears to the eyes just as it should.
Symphony No.3: the huge but coherent opening movement is very convincing and gains greatly from Abbado's marvellously balanced orchestral forces. The Lucerne musicians demonstrate just how good Mahler's creation can be. Their solos in the centre of this vast canvas remind one just how delicate a lot of this music is. The trombone is particularly fine. The second movement has a fleetness of foot that reminds one of Mendelssohn's fairy music. Abbado smiles his way through much of the second and third movements and they do sound miraculously right in his hands. Anna Larsson's glorious voice and the equally beautiful oboe and cor anglais solos bring a great calmness to the song. It seems that no detail goes overlooked. The boys voices in the fifth movement are very strong and thus express a darker side to the movement. The Lucerne cellos give the opening of the finale a different feel to the norm but as always with this conductor it sounds absolutely right. This of all movements brings out the magnificence of the strings and particularly the unusual strength of the violas and cellos. It comes as no surprise that the end is greeted with utter silence for a remarkable length of time. The tumultuous applause and standing ovation when it does start is fully deserved. The shocked and tear-stained faces in the audience tell of a genuinely great performance.
Ruckert Lieder: I am sorry to say that Magdalena Kozena, a favourite singer of mine, comes over as rather uninvolved here. I am tempted to suggest this is irrelevant in a box of such wonderful performances of the symphonies.
Symphony No.4: I did wonder about the sound in this symphony, a little less presence than in other performances. The interpretation is very fine throughout with Abbado's meticulous attention to detail really paying dividends. The third movement storms the heavens just as it should. Ms Kozena is excellent in the finale.
Symphony No.5: I can only refer readers to my earlier review where I noted that "performances of this quality do not come along very often". Superb!
Symphony No.6: This being referred to as Mahler's 'Tragic' symphony it is perhaps surprising to report that it is the delicacy that stays in the mind. The chamber-music textures of the Andante Moderato are a source of great pleasure especially when pitted against the gorgeous string tone. Abbado is at his best in these quieter passages. The Scherzo too has much delicate and rhythmic interplay and it is obvious from the pictures that the orchestra relishes the subtleties, whilst the conductor beams at them with satisfaction. There are lots of smiles of recognition and approbation. It is good to report satisfyingly loud hammer-blows in the Finale, achieved as Mahler wishes by hitting a piece of raised platform. After the grim final moments the audience sit in stunned silence before the now inevitable ovation.
Symphony No.7 is the last in the box and is the most difficult symphony to bring off. Abbado achieves as fine a performance as I can remember hearing with perfectly judged tempi and balances. The coda is as loud as it can possibly be and the audience erupts into wild applause. After fifty years of listening to this music I still have no idea what Mahler is doing but the LFO/Abbado forces somehow achieve coherence.
This is a superb box for those who have resisted the separate issues. Unmissable!
Reviews of individual releases of these recordings
Symphony 1: Bluray --- DVD
Symphony 4: DVD
Symphony 5: Bluray --- DVD
Symphony 6: DVD
Symphony 7: Bluray --- DVD
A superb box for those who have resisted the separate issues. Unmissable!