Mahler 3/Abbado (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3

Anna Larsson (contralto)

Arnold Schoenberg Chor (female voices)
Tölzer Knabenchor

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado

Recorded 19 August 2007 in KKL Luzern, Switzerland

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: MEDICI ARTS 2056338
Duration: 102 minutes



This DVD preserves a concert of Mahler’s Third Symphony given by Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Switzerland. Abbado’s bespoke orchestra, which convenes for 10 weeks every summer, is made up of the 48 players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra supplemented by principals from other leading orchestras and a number of distinguished solo and chamber musicians. They include violinists Kolja Blacher, Ilya Gringolts and Sebastian Breuninger, violists Wolfram Christ and Dietmut Poppen, cellists Natalia Gutman and Valentin Erben, clarinettist Sabine Meyer, flautist Jacques Zoon and trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich.

Not surprisingly, refinement is the keynote of this performance. In the long opening movement, originally titled “Summer Marches In”, Abbado carefully follows Mahler’s dynamic and tempo markings while delivering a strong sense of line and building powerful climaxes. Solos are beautifully phrased and one senses the orchestra responding to each other as much as they are to Abbado’s conducting. There are times when the sheer precision of the playing threatens to tame the wildness of Mahler’s vision but for the most part the movement’s power and atmosphere are strongly conveyed.

The second movement, which often sounds inconsequential after the extravagance of the first, makes a strong impression here. The playing communicates charm and playfulness, and Abbado highlights the movement’s links with the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” song ‘Das himmlische Leben’, which Mahler once intended as the finale of the Third Symphony before it became the last movement of the Fourth.

The orchestra’s luxury casting is especially valuable in the third movement, where much of the melodic material (deriving from the song “Ablösung im Sommer”) is given to the section leaders. With encouraging smiles from Abbado, the orchestral playing here is exquisite. The tempo for the posthorn solo is relatively swift but the instrument is ideally distanced and the non-credited player provides a deeply affecting performance. During the posthorn’s second appearance, the strings display luminosity reminiscent of the Prelude to Act One of “Lohengrin”. Not everything is ideal, however. Mahler’s instruction at rehearsal point 23 of the score is “Grob!” (coarsely), but the playing here (11’24” into the movement) is almost obdurately polite. At such moments one craves something more raucous.

The soloist for the fourth movement is Anna Larsson, who also featured on Abbado’s 1999 CD-recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Although Larsson has an ideal voice for Mahler’s setting of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song”, there is a detachment in her singing and a slight lack of atmosphere in the playing which detracts from the movement’s primordial nature. Incidentally, Abbado has the oboe and cor anglais providing an upward glissando at Mahler’s instruction of “hinaufzehen” (pull up). In the fifth movement, the choral singing is enthusiastic but Abbado’s approach tends towards seriousness rather than sparkle.

Although the finale’s duration of 22 minutes is not unusually fast, Abbado’s phrasing rarely lingers and there is a leanness to string tone which makes something chaste of it. The movement’s intermediate climaxes arrive with impressive weight and unanimity but do not convey a sense of struggle, and the final apotheosis has grandeur but not fervour. At such points, some listeners may prefer a more overtly emotional approach.

In terms of the available DVD versions, the newcomer is preferable to Bernstein’s 1972 version with the Vienna Philharmonic and Haitink’s 1991 account with the Berlin Philharmonic. Despite these conductors’ well-known credentials as Mahlerians, their orchestras seem rather inhibited in these recordings. Similarly, this DVD is to be preferred in terms of picture and sound quality. Indeed, the 5.1 surround option, available in both Dolby and DTS formats, sounds spectacular. In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the performance, this DVD stands comparison with the best audio recordings and makes a valuable contribution to the Mahler 3 discography.

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