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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [30:29]
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor [79:01]
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 19-20 August 2015, Concert Hall of KKL Luzern
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
Picture format: 6:9 NTSC. Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 dts 5.1. Region Code 0 (worldwide)

This DVD is edited together from two Mahler concerts given in August 2015 which found Andris Nelsons at the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Matthias Goerne joined them for a selection of songs from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. There’s a great deal to admire here but one thing that I did not admire was Goerne’s constant swaying and moving about. No doubt it indicates his immersion in the music but I found it downright distracting and I yearned for him simply to stand still and sing. Perhaps I should have simply shut my eyes because what one hears is very satisfying. Goerne’s singing is very fine indeed. For instance in Wo die schönen Trompeten Blasen there’s honeyed tone and seamless legato to savour. Here, and in several other songs, Goerne’s high register is wonderful to hear, especially when he’s singing softly. His rapt delivery of the first half of Urlicht is very impressive.

As the performance unfolded I came to appreciate more and more the vivid way in which he tells the stories of these songs. That’s true, for example, in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. Best of all from the characterisation point of view are the last two songs, both of which have a military theme. Goerne conveys the bitterness of Revelge very well indeed though I thought the tempo adopted by Nelsons was perhaps just a fraction too brisk. On the other hand Der Tambourg’sell, and especially the second half where the doomed drummer boy bids ‘Gute nacht’, is daringly slow and tragic. Goerne and Nelsons give this song a riveting performance right from the start where the ominous, heavy tread as the boy is led out to the gallows is truly doom-laden. This intensely dramatic reading gripped me.

Goerne’s singing of the songs is very fine indeed and Nelsons conducts superbly. The orchestral part in Rheinlegendchen is deliciously pointed and the playing in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is characterful and piquant. Indeed, in all seven songs the accompaniment is marvellously and imaginatively done.

The performance of the Fifth Symphony has an awful lot going for it - fabulous playing for a start - but I have one major reservation, namely Nelsons’ tendency to excessive contrasts of tempo. By this I mean his slower tempi because his pacing of the quick music is well-nigh ideal. However, too often when Mahler requires a slower speed Nelsons pulls back too much for my taste. I noted a similar tendency in a Lucerne performance of the Brahms Second Symphony that I reviewed not long ago. Looking back, I see that I referred to “a tendency to love the music too much at times” in that performance. I’m perplexed because I don’t recall identifying this trait when I attended a good number of concerts that he conducted in Birmingham, save for an Elgar Second Symphony in 2014 (review). As I listened to this Mahler performance the thought crossed my mind that perhaps Nelsons feels emboldened to be expansive because in the LFO he has such a magnificent, responsive orchestra at his disposal.

The first movement opens strongly and dramatically but then when the strings play the lamenting funeral march I felt that the speed was just a bit too expansive as Nelsons probed the expressive heart of the music. The over-fulsome booklet note mentions that the last time the LFO played this symphony was under the baton of Claudio Abbado in 2004. By chance I have the DVD of that performance, which I rate very highly (review). A comparison revealed that Abbado’s basic tempo for the funeral march is a bit swifter than Nelsons’ yet I sense no lack of weight or feeling in the great Italian’s treatment of the music. I just get the feeling that Nelsons is underlining everything in the music in a way that Abbado does not. The impassioned episode later in the movement is superbly done by Nelsons with all the taut nervous energy you could wish.

Mit großter Vehemenz is part of the tempo indication for the second movement and Nelsons certainly supplies that. The opening music is fast, fiery and snarling. A few minutes in there’s a recitative-like passage for the cello section in unison over a soft timpani roll. Nelsons draws this passage out dangerously, I think. When I turned to Abbado the same passage is not pulled about to the same degree yet I find no want of expression in Abbado’s account. Throughout this movement Nelsons’ rendition of the fast music is superb but some of the contrasts of tempo are a bit too extreme for my taste.

The big central scherzo has a crucial concertante role for the first horn. One or two conductors – Sir Simon Rattle, for one – have even been known to bring the horn player down to the front of the platform. Neither Nelsons nor Abbado follows that practice, though the Italian gets his (unnamed) player to stand up. Alessio Allegrini is superb for Nelsons – Abbado has an equally distinguished principal horn. Nelsons’ account of this movement is very fine. The music is dynamic and highly rhythmic and there’s a fine sense of the outdoors is conveyed. True, he does slow down rather too much on one or two occasions but overall he characterises the music extremely well and the orchestral playing is peerless in all departments.

When it comes to the celebrated Adagietto Nelsons takes a full three minutes longer than Abbado – the Nelsons performance plays for 11:26. I like the way that the Italian gets the music to flow effortlessly while the emotional side of the piece still registers strongly. Nelsons, though, is highly persuasive. Broader he may be than Abbado but I don’t find his performance at all self-indulgent. The music is lovingly shaped and superbly played – the richness of the LFO’s string section is wonderful to hear. There’s ardour when called for but it’s never overdone.

Both conductors make a superb job of the Rondo finale where there are far fewer opportunities for dalliance, which works in Nelsons’ favour. He leads a bright, cheerful account of this virtuoso movement. When he reaches the reprise of the brass chorale, first heard towards the end of the second movement, the music is absolutely majestic yet unforced in this performance. You can see that Nelsons is loving the moment – and why not? That peak passed, he leads a thrilling dash for the finish line.

It’s interesting - and revealing – to note that Abbado’s very fine performance plays for 69:20, some 10 minutes less than Nelsons – both timings include applause at the end. The difference is all to do with Nelsons’ treatment of slower music. I also noted with considerable interest the contrasting styles of the two conductors. Abbado, who would have been 71 at the time of his performance, is much more economical of gesture than is the much younger Nelsons, yet there is no lack of animation or intensity in Abbado’s conducting and, my goodness, he gets results. Nelsons also gets wonderful results, but in a more flamboyant way. I have to say that, though there’s a great deal to admire in this Nelsons performance, my preference is very much for Abbado’s leaner, less consciously moulded treatment of the symphony.

Production values are high in this Accentus release. The picture quality and sound are both excellent. Both sound and picture are very good on the Abbado DVD but comparison between the two shows that technology has advanced in the last eleven years.

John Quinn

Wunderhorn songs
Rheinlegendchen [3:25]
Wo die schönen Trompeten Blasen [7:20]
Das irdische Leben [2:40]
Urlicht [5:33]
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4:24]
Revelge [6:27]
Der Tambourg’sell [10:40]



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