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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 2 in C minor, Resurrection (1894) [81:11]
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano), Christa Ludwig (contralto)
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Zubin Mehta
rec. February 1975, Sofiensaal, Vienna
Stereo (PCM, dts-HD Master Audio)
German texts, with English and French translations
DECCA BD-A 478 5030 [81:11]

We’ve all done it; imprinted on a specific recording, that is. I certainly did on a late winter’s afternoon in 1980, when I first heard this Resurrection on LP. It was the start of a love affair with this symphony that shows no sign of waning. As for the recording itself it’s remained a favourite of mine, despite the countless versions I’ve heard or reviewed since. Indeed, I still maintain it’s one of Zubin Mehta’s finest and most enduring performances on record. It’s not his only Mahler 2, though; he also recorded a rather less successful version with the Israel Philharmonic. Curiously Decca chose the latter for release on DVD-Audio in 2001.
 
This Vienna Resurrection last appeared on a premium-price SACD from Universal Japan; before that, in 2000, it was reeased as part of the 24/96 Decca Legends series. I bought several of the latter, including Solti’s Mahler Eighth, and found most didn’t live up to the hype. Generally they sound very clean – often clinically so – and that makes them fatiguing to listen to. However, Decca’s recent BD-A/high-res download of that Mahler 8 is nothing short of a revelation (review). Indeed, it raised my hopes for a top-flight re-master of this WP Mahler 2. Incidentally, Warner’s 24/96 re-master of Klemperer’s 1961/62 Resurrection also surpasses earlier incarnations of that classic; not surprisingly it was among my Recordings of the Year 2013 (review).
 
As with other releases from the Universal stable – of which Decca is now a part – the BD-A under review offers PCM and dts-Master Audio options, selected via the coloured buttons on your Blu-ray player’s remote control. It’s all very basic compared with the mshuttle software embedded in BD-As from 2L and their partners. That allows access to additional content – documentation and downloadable audio files in a variety of codecs - via a PC or Mac. Elegant and intuitive mshuttle is the best way to go; alas, the jumble of BD-A ‘standards’ is symptomatic of a general lack of co-ordination in the record industry. It's all too familiar, I’m afraid.
 
So, have Decca applied some of their snake oil to this Resurrection? First impressions are quite favourable, although it soon becomes clear that the treble is quite fierce. The recording isn’t particularly spacious either, and there are audible shifts in perspective as well. That matters less when the performance is as muscular and forthright as this. There’s none of the agony and etiolation of late Tennstedt and Bernstein, just a sure sense of structure and purpose. The orchestra are on good form too, and this re-master makes the excellent timps sound more thrilling than ever.
 
Given that the virtues of this performance are well documented, it probably makes more sense for me to focus on the sonics. Apart from the reservations already expressed the sound of this BD-A is pretty decent, if not the quantum leap I’d hoped for. There are times – in the quieter, more pointed moments especially – where this re-master takes me back to the beguiling loveliness of the original LPs. That said, tuttis can lack focus – the timp-led crescendi, for example - but the heroic brass and the two soloists are superbly caught. Happily there’s none of the jar and judder that occasionally disfigures Solti’s Eighth, made in the Sofiensaal just four years earlier. In any case such is the strength and veracity of Mehta’s reading that sonic shortfalls don’t matter too much.
 
As a performance this reminds me of Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg set, which was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2010 (review); he also takes a firm, no-nonsense view of this symphony without diluting its emotional impact. He has the benefit of superior modern sound, and that’s a real plus in the dynamically challenging finale. Mehta’s off-stage brass are more convincing than most and his chorus are crisp and fervid from the outset. Tension rises slowly and inexorably and the hushed singing has an added presence that I hadn’t sensed before. Ditto the plangent woodwind and gorgeous harps.
 
I remember the Romanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas being pilloried for her ‘intrusive aitches’ in Kleiber’s Traviata, recorded two years later. I certainly don’t have any problems with her phrasing and diction here. As for Christa Ludwig – who graces so many fine recordings of this work – she’s as radiant as ever. Mehta’s tempi and tempo relationships have always struck me as very convincing, and it’s only in the immediate run-up to the clarion call of ‘Bereite dich!’ that the pace slackens somewhat. He soon reasserts his grip and the finale flowers as naturally as it always did. The assembled supplicants are as ecstatic as ever, and while the bells were never prominent in this recording I’m pleased to report the organ sounds far more substantial than it did before.
 
So, a classic Resurrection that stirs and uplifts with the best of them. It certainly deserves a place at the top table, whatever Mehta's detractors might say. Also, it’s a good springboard for newcomers to the work, not least because it avoids the excesses that clot and cloy so many of its rivals. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but the directness of Mehta, Klemperer, Gielen, Wit, Zinman, Nott and Young is what I cherish most these days. On Blu-ray video Riccardo Chailly’s Leipzig account combines a well-focused reading with ravishing sound and pictures (review). That really is BD technology at its best.
 
This BD-A isn’t the quantum leap I’d hoped for; still, it’s a moving and memorable performance.
 
Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Previous review: John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 2