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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)
Chen Reiss (soprano)
Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)
Orfeó Català
Palau de la Música Catalana Chamber Choir
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, 27 June 2019, Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona, Spain
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Subtitles: German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in stereo
UNITEL EDITION Blu-ray 802904 [91 mins]

This is an excellent Mahler Second, and a quite unusual one too in that it is, as noted in the heading, derived from a single concert. I have at least four other live performances of this symphony on disc and all are taken from more than one concert. Conductors and orchestras are typically reluctant to record such a massive and difficult work as this from a single session or concert. Thus both Gustavo Dudamel and the performers here must be commended for their fine work in producing what is truly a most compelling account of this great symphony under the limited circumstances.

Dudamel's pacing of the work is in the moderate to slightly expansive range, though the timing listed in the heading would suggest an even longer performance. That's because about three minutes are included for the opening and closing credits, as well as for applause at the performance's end. The symphony's duration is actually 87:40, about two or three minutes longer than average and thus not unusual.

The first movement opens with plenty of dark atmosphere and tension, the strings digging in and playing intensely. Dudamel's detail-rich phrasing and imaginative shaping of the score allows a funereal sense to hover above the music as it proceeds through the exposition and into the development section. This is most fitting when we remember that Mahler named the original version of this movement Totenfeier, or Funeral Rite, explaining this was the funeral of the hero of his First Symphony ('Titan'). The climactic moments come off with sufficient power and drama here, and the whole movement goes very well. The accuracy and precision of the orchestra are quite impressive, considering the complexity and challenging nature of this music.

The ensuing Andante is appropriately relaxed and serene most of the time, the music quite a contrast to what is heard in all the other movements. Dudamel and company impart a quite lovely Viennese quality to the Ländler, giving it a leisurely lilt as the strings so deftly employ rubato, and their vibrato seems perfectly measured to fit the folk-like character of the music and its mixture of serenity and playfulness. The following Scherzo is labeled “with quietly flowing movement”, but is deceptive in its dark character, its seemingly comedic menace having teeth. Those teeth are shown most noticeably near the end in the so-called “death shriek.” The music is based on Mahler's song, St. Anthony of Padua Preaching to the Fishes, from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn (more about this below). Dudamel and the Munich players incarnate the spirit of the music well, giving it a flowing quality alright but accompanying it with sinister sounds from the bassoon and with clarinets and flutes that subtly goad the music to turn toward mischief. The whole movement is well conceived and brilliantly played, again with much meaningful detail emerging.

The fourth movement, Ihrlicht (Primal Light), can be viewed as the third “intermezzo” movement separating the two grand epic statements that open and close the symphony. The text for this panel comes from the collection of folk poems and songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Mahler was greatly influenced by this work, and not just in his own Des Knaben Wunderhorn: his Symphonies 2, 3 and 4 are often called his Wunderhorn symphonies, because of the inspiration these poems and songs gave him in this trio of works. Anyway, in this fourth movement we hear the ravishing singing of mezzo Tamara Mumford. She has a rich, creamy sounding voice and imparts the right measure of drama in her sensitive phrasing throughout this lovely movement.

Up to this point the performance is quite a strong one, but in the finale the interpretation and playing, as well as the singing of the chorus and soloists, Chen Reiss and Tamara Mumford, are all superb. The movement begins dramatically, the atmosphere exuding mystery, especially in the playing of Mahler's Dies Irae variation. Tension builds in the woodwinds and strings, and then the solemnity that follows is rendered with especially exquisite playing by the brass. Everything seems to come together for the remainder of this lengthy movement as the music builds toward the final glorious climax, the grand statement of the 'Resurrection' theme that crowns this movement so powerfully. Again, the tempos are slightly on the expansive side, though largely in the slower music, but Dudamel always makes them work so well. In faster sections there is hardly anything laggard: try the music from about 1:07:45 to 1:09:33, where Dudamel achieves a real sense of that kind of Mahlerian desperation and urgency that can deliver striking impact. Again, this is an utterly splendid account of the finale.

The sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced, and the video quality is excellent. That said, the camera's view is partly blocked in a few instances, and there are moments when the camera shot switches too quickly from one to another to suit all tastes. Still, these possibly questionable aspects do not sabotage the overall fine video quality.

As for the competition, not surprisingly, it is immense, with great performances on CD from Kubelik (DG), Solti (Decca), Litton (Delos), Mehta (Decca and Teldec), Jansons (BR Klassik – review), Bernstein (Sony and DG), Zander (Linn) and undoubtedly many others. Dudamel stacks up well against the best of these, but the field is so packed with great performances, it's hard to declare anybody a winner. In the video realm, however, Dudamel has just two imposing rivals of the several I have: Chailly with the Gewandhaus Orchestra on Accentus Music and Paavo Järvi with the Frankfurt RSO on Unitel/C Major. I think I would give a slight edge to Järvi over Chailly, but Järvi's performance, while perhaps the equal of Dudamel's, has less impressive video quality, at least in its Blu-ray format. So, for right now I would give the edge to Dudamel. Actually, this is great Mahler in any format.

Robert Cummings

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