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Mahler: Symphony No 6 / Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Mahler / Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Abbado
Release Date: 06/26/2007 
Label:  Euroarts   Catalog #: 2055648  
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 6 Claudio Abbado, cond; Lucerne Festival O EUROARTS 2055648 (DVD: 89:00) Live: Lucerne 8/10/2006

This DVD joins the earlier videos of Mahler symphonies performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at their annual gathering and recorded, one per year, beginning in 2003 with Symphony No. 2 (a Ninth, performed by the Gustav Mahler Youth Chamber Orchestra in Rome, was also added in 2004). Nos. 5, 7, and now 6 have provided an important complement to the earlier series of Mahler symphonies Read more that Claudio Abbado recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic; just as important, they are a very satisfying concert experience for those of us unlikely ever to see the orchestra in its natural setting.

I took the opportunity of its arrival to compare this performance with the one included in the DVD set of Mahler symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Vienna on DG, as well as Abbado’s own audio recording of the Sixth from Berlin. Bernstein’s performance, as important as it is to his legacy, is outclassed by this new release. The advances in sound reproduction since the recording in Vienna was made couldn’t be more clearly demonstrated: the DG sound, though very good for its time, sounds boxy and constricted when compared to the wide-open spaciousness of this new EuroArts production. Audio options include Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround, but the PCM stereo to which I listened was satisfyingly full and deep.

Most revelatory, though, was the way in which these two very different performances challenged me to question my preconceptions. I’ve been an admirer of the Bernstein Sixth, in its various incarnations and almost to the exclusion of all others, for over 35 years. But in listening to the DVD, I began to hear how inflexible the Bernstein first movement seems, and how the very quick tempo he sets now not only sounds too fast, but seems almost perfunctory in its very implacability.

Abbado, on the other hand, sets a coldly determined tempo for the first movement that isn’t much slower than Bernstein’s but communicates a better sense of the marking ma non troppo without losing any of its power. The “Alma” theme is just as much of a contrast in this performance, but takes on added meaning due to the strength of the first theme (and due to the exquisitely delicate nature of the lead-in to “Alma”).

In an A-B comparison with the stereo version of Abbado’s Berlin Sixth, the DVD has more presence and more instrumental detail within a heightened dynamic level; as impressive as the DG production is—and it is the best stereo production of recent vintage—there is an audible gain with the PCM layer of the DVD that adds just that much more enjoyment to the performance. Abbado’s interpretation has deepened in the two years between the recordings (the Berlin was taped in 2004): each movement has gained some time, with the consequent result that the performance feels stronger, more considered. Though there is no real substantive interpretive difference between these two exceptional performances, this performance from Lucerne seems to plumb the depths of this complex score just that much more effectively.

The Andante follows the Allegro energico in this new DVD, as it had in Berlin, and Abbado makes—again—a compelling case for this version with a performance imbued with calm but also troubled by doubt (all communicated through some almost miraculously sensitive playing by this remarkable orchestra); the kind of catharsis that one feels after the battering provided by the first two movements is diminished when the Andante comes second, so one listens to the shifting moods and the amazing orchestration with different ears. It almost seems a truer Mahlerian experience when one realizes that the next two movements will give one very few opportunities for such calm again.

There is delicacy and playfulness, though: one can see why Alma chose to characterize the Scherzo as a portrait of the children as toddlers (Benjamin Zander makes a convincing case that Mahler may have been influenced by the Sinfonia domestica of Strauss). What is harrowing, and very clearly communicated in this performance, is the pathetic way the music simply loses all of its energy at the end, not unlike a heart that gives out after too much exercise. The finale isn’t any less harrowing, ushered in on expressionistic waves of sound, so clearly differentiated in this production—the clarity is exemplary throughout the performance.

Watching the (two) hammer blows in the finale is tremendous fun: the percussionist, tuxedo and all, swings a very outsized hammer onto a wooden crate, creating just the dry but deep sound Mahler wanted—if this wasn’t Mahler, it would have to be Monty Python. But the images that are the most telling are the frequent looks of satisfaction and joy that beam from Abbado’s face—still lean and set atop a body diminished by his own brush with mortality, it is the face of a survivor, but a survivor clearly savoring the fruits of his life’s work. This superb orchestra and this performance are evidence of the importance of that work.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1904/1906; Austria 

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