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Mahler: Symphony No 4; Schoenberg: Pelleas / Abbado

Mahler / Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester / Abbado
Release Date: 07/28/2009 
Label:  Euroarts   Catalog #: 2055488  
Composer:  Arnold SchoenbergGustav Mahler
Performer:  Juliane Banse
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Also available on Blu-ray

SCHOENBERG Pelleas und Melisande. MAHLER Symphony No 4 Claudio Abbado, cond; Juliane Banse (sop); Gustav Mahler Youth O MEDICI ARTS 2055488 (DVD: 113:00) Live: Vienna 4/24–25/2006

The DVD is a killer invention suited to a killer musical program. It is helpful to our understanding the drama of opera, movies, and Read more symphonic works performed by a symphony orchestra. It is easy to see how “catching on” to an opera (or a feature film) depends on the body language and facial expressions of the players. It’s more difficult to explain how a video representation of an orchestra at play helps us “get” a mostly auditory experience. Some people use orchestral music to fall asleep by, after all. Others like to watch the byplay of the musicians, how they hand off to one another. Some insist watching an orchestra play is as exciting as watching jazz musicians play off one another. How does this work?

Maybe it has to do with showing a long shot of an entire orchestra (and the interior of Vienna’s fabled Grosser Musikvereinsaal), then showing a medium shot where a whole (or most) of a string section, say, may be squeezed into the image; then zooming to three or four players making eye contact with each other and the conductor, bobbing their heads in perfect unison to keep the beat; and then zooming in closer so we might see two violinists with their left hands at work in perfect synchronicity, their bowing right hands going up and down metronomically in order to deliver the notes with precision of attack. The music ebbs and flows, quickens and slows; and a good TV director uses his score to know when to pan, and when to zoom from a large group shot to a small group—from a “smiley face” to a “hands only” shot; faster and faster, orchestra play facilitates our perception and is almost as stimulating as hearing the audio alone, say, through a radio broadcast in a car. The video keeps us awake, focused, and into the music.

This is what we get in this DVD of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under Claudio Abbado (its founder), playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande . Moreover, in a 15-minute introduction to Pelleas , the narrator explains how the Maeterlinck work prompted the album’s producers to “use images both directly inspired by Maeterlinck’s play (by Marianne Stokes, Khnopff, or Schwabe) and more generally related to it (works by Lacombe, Fabry, Delville, Redon, Kokoschka, Klimt, Munch, and Schiele, as well as Schoenberg’s own paintings).” And a representative sample of these is shown during the explanatory Introduction. This is an exciting way to demonstrate how a group of paintings lends verisimilitude to an otherwise dry and bald-faced narrative. It is an extravagant hook by which to engage the listener, having perhaps two dozen of these iconic paintings in one place where one can examine them individually on the big screen, hi-rez TV monitor. Plus the two musical selections one can watch being performed. Use of paintings, as graphic representations of the emotions the musical artists try to evoke, might be the shrewdest way to take advantage of opportunities presented by the DVD medium. Couch potatoes might even get up off their, er, um, sofas in order to freeze-frame each painting to inspect it more closely. As Kate Smith might have sung, “God Bless the DVD.”

As to the music-making: I have considerable shelf space dedicated to Mahler’s Fourth. It is one of Oblomov’s favorites. I know this Symphony like my tongue knows the back of my incisors. Abbado takes his forces through the performance with great élan and joie de vivre , and you can see the delight on his face as his players deliver the first three movements crisply, and in top form. The musicians are the skimmed crème de la crème of the European conservatory system, each less than 26 years old, and soon to fill many chairs in Europe’s symphony orchestras.

The final movement might be considered a 10-minute song, and it certainly stands alone as sung by Juliane Banse, a soprano whose international successes are already numerous. Her instrument is one of a young woman, and while this sleigh ride suggests the play of children, her voice makes it sound somewhat romantic. Think of bundling with your significant other under a horsehair blanket in an open sleigh on a cold night in the Vienna woods. The timbre of Banse’s voice suggests something more than a child’s “folksong-like description of Paradise.” She is one of those “special” sopranos that come along infrequently, and her performance of “Das himmlishe Leben” (Afterlife in Heaven) is one to remember, a fitting finale to a glowingly rendered symphony.

Arnold Schoenberg’s lyrically charged symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande , comes from his “late-Romantic, post-Wagnerian” period (when he was 28), and precedes his work with 12-tone music, so fear not. This music is programmatic in that it follows the plot of the Maeterlinck play. Its seven sections are titled: “A forest,” “A fountain in the park,” “A castle tower,” “The castle vaults,” “Pelleas and Melisande (love scene and farewell),” “Golaud spies on the lovers,” and “Melisande dies in her room.” It has motifs for destiny, love, jealousy, marriage, etc., and themes that follow the main characters: Pelleas, Melisande, and Golaud. Sometimes, when all this music overlaps, it becomes turgid and too Wagnerian for me. Okay. So the true lovers are doomed. Sometimes it happens that way, even in real life. But in life, it is often mercifully briefer. Still, the performance of the Pelleas score is first-class, and the orchestra shines through all that destiny and Schoenberg have to offer. It is engagingly played, if in spots bombastic and too long.

I don’t want to have my interpretation of Pelleas dissuade would-be purchasers from this album. Schoenberg fans will dismiss it. I feel the introduction to Pelleas alone is worth the price of admission, and the Mahler Fourth is so top-notch it is one of those “small miracles” that happen sometimes in live recording sessions. With those few reservations, I’m glad to say this DVD album is heartily recommended.

FANFARE: Ilya Oblomov

Recorded live at the Musikverein (Großer Saal), Vienna, 24-25 April 2006.

Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
Running time: 113 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
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Works on This Recording

Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 by Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902-1903; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Juliane Banse (Soprano)
Conductor:  Claudio Abbado
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria 

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