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Mahler: Symphony No 6 / Abbado, Berlin Po

Release Date: 07/12/2005 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000475736   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 1 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Selection includes Applause.
This album received the 2006 Gramophone magazine awards for "Record of the Year" and "Best of Category (Orchestral)."
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

This performance is the latest in a series of Mahler recordings by Abbado with his former orchestra: in this particular instance, he revisits a work he recorded 25 years ago in Chicago. This time around, he joins an increasing number of conductors who have adopted the revisions Mahler made to the two inner movements, performing the Andante as the second movement.

The first movement
Read more tempo is medium quick, by which I mean that it’s slower than Bernstein’s ferocious pace on DG, a bit slower than either Tilson Thomas’s or Abbado’s illustrious Berlin predecessor in his 1975 recording, also on DG, but faster than Benjamin Zander on Telarc or Simon Rattle on EMI. In fact, Abbado duplicates the tempo he set on his own previous recording. This new performance benefits from more spacious (and deeper) sound, and is (not surprisingly) less studio-bound, basking in the ambience and acoustic space of the Philharmonie. There is plenty of detail, and the inner voices are more clearly delineated than in the Chicago performance. There are also subtle differences in the approach to the opening march: it is less purely emphatic than previously, blending more with the rest of the orchestra, but becoming noticeably more of a presence as the opening proceeds; upon reaching the repeat, the march is almost stealthy, again gaining force as it progresses. This is very effective. My feeling about Abbado’s Mahler is that he steers a course somewhere between the pure subjectivity of Bernstein and the more analytical quality of Boulez; while I’m not as emotionally caught up in the performance as I am when Bernstein sweeps me along, I can more readily apprehend the structure and detail without feeling left out in the cold, as with Boulez. An illustration of what I mean comes at the point where Mahler pauses in the first movement to take the mountain air. Zander and Bernstein suspend time and allow for a good draft of Alpine essence; Abbado keeps things moving, but still manages to give you a decent look at the scenery.

The order of the two inner movements is the most obvious difference between Abbado’s two recordings, but there is also a distinctly noticeable revision in the Andante: the conductor has shaved two minutes from a timing that was by no means expansive (15:53 in Chicago) to begin with; all of the fat has been trimmed, and the music flows sweetly and evenly, if, it must be said, at the expense of the sense of respite that seems so necessary when the Andante comes after the two march movements—maybe that’s why Abbado felt that he could move things along. That said, there is playing of exquisite sensitivity on display in this movement.

The Scherzo pounds its way in, but not in an abrasive fashion; it’s more in the manner of “meanwhile, back in the real world” after the sojourn in the rarefied air of the Andante. Once again, the pace is a bit quicker than in the 1979 recording, but there is playfulness in the second subject, and the aggressive edge of the earlier performance has been softened. And once again, the difference in the sound is remarkable: the earlier recording from Chicago had a concentrated quality that added to its impact but also now sounds somewhat constricted; the new performance presents an expanded soundstage but manages to make just as much of an impact, given the increased depth at the lower end of the spectrum.

The excellence of the sound is even more obvious when the whole orchestra makes its presence felt after the enigmatic opening measures of the finale: this orchestra has power to burn. The following exposition, with its almost Expressionist peroration, is both menacing and mysterious, with especially distant bells and slightly sour horns, all reminiscent of the Witches’ Sabbath in the Symphonie fantastique. The hammer blow, when it arrives, is terrific: a dry, loud thwack that sounds across the entire soundstage without drowning out the rest of the orchestra; it is completely arresting. The second blow is just slightly less cataclysmic, which adheres perfectly to Mahler’s preference. The distant orchestral bells that sound during the “music from far away” in the recapitulation are barely audible, while the onstage cowbells are closer, an altogether eerie effect that is another indication of Abbado’s careful preparation. As do most conductors, Abbado eliminates the third hammer blow. The closing orchestral punctuation is not so much terrifying as final, like a door being shut on a mausoleum.

Altogether, this is a very impressive performance, which has grown in my estimation in the short time I’ve known it. While it won’t quite displace Sixths by Bernstein, Tilson Thomas, or Zander from my top shelf, one can easily apprehend the intimate knowledge of Mahler’s music at work here, and it joins the other recent Abbado recordings (from Berlin and elsewhere) on my short list of Mahler performances that are worth revisiting often.

Christopher Abbot, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 
Date of Recording: 06/2004 
Venue:  Live  Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany 
Length: 79 Minutes 11 Secs. 

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