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Robert Benson, December 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Boulez) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2054424
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2053264
MAHLER, G.: Symphonies Nos. 1-7 (Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2058574

Now we have three new issues two of which are Blu Ray reissue (Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez). Abbado’s with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra was recorded in 2003, first reviewed on this site by the late R.D. when issued on CD. The same recording was issued on DVD covered on this site in 200. Now the same performance is released yet again, but this time remastered for Blu Ray, and it has never sounded better. This same Blu Ray issue is included in the 4 disk Blu Ray set listed above where it is joined by Abbado’s previously released recordings of symphonies 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, and surely this is the set to get even if you might already have several of the others. This is an incredible bargain—4 Blu Ray disks at a bargain price. The set also includes two other works originally issued coupled with the symphonies, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yuja Wang, and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder with Magdalena Kozena. …the 4-disk set which surely is the better purchase. © 2011 Read complete review

Lawrence Devoe, December 2011

The Abbado performance delivers a substantial measure of this work, and those seeking an excellent Mahler Second would not go wrong here. © 2011 Read complete review

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, March 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 1 / PROKOFIEV, S.: Piano Concerto No. 3 (Yuja Wang, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2057964
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2053264
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 6 (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2055644

Claudio Abbado, along with Michael Haefliger, the artistic director of the annual Lucerne Festival, founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003. The orchestra has as its core the 40 members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the ensemble is filled out with players invited by Abbado, frequently well-known soloists or members of top orchestras. Familiar names include Wolfram Christ (for 20 years principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic,) Jacques Zoon (once principal flutist of the Concertgebouw and Boston Symphony Orchestras), and clarinetist Sabine Meyer. The personnel changes each summer and the musicians are together for only a few weeks but, as with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestral, the level of talent and a powerful sense of purpose result in performances that achieve the refinement of more “permanent” organizations. Abbado leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra each August for the festival’s opening concerts.

Mahler’s symphonies, of course, have been central to Abbado’s repertoire throughout his long career. He’s recorded most of them more than once, and any of those recordings would stand as evidence of his affinity for the composer’s music. With these three performances, dating from 2003 (No. 2), 2006 (No. 6), and 2009 (No. 1), we can tell that Abbado is getting exactly what he wants from his hand-picked ensemble. There’s a faint smile on his face at the end of each movement—except after the finale of No. 6, when the conductor places a hand over his heart and exhales slowly. With all three readings, a profound sense of two-way communication between the instrumentalists and the conductor is very apparent.

The first movement of Abbado’s “Titan” has the requisite sense of expectancy to the opening pages; a second movement that feels less like a heavy-footed village dance than an honest-to-goodness orchestral scherzo follows. There’s a grim deceleration toward the end of III that’s very effective, and the drama of the finale is played for all it’s worth. The “Resurrection” is the least remarkable of these performances, though hardly negligible. After an effectively paced first movement, the Andante moderato is missing a little of the gemütlich flavor of other versions, though it’s lovingly shaped and transparently articulate. “In ruhig Fließender Bewegung” flows with a beguiling liquidity. The last two movements have more than enough mystery and grandeur to satisfy the many devotees of this work.

It’s Symphony No. 6 that should be a top choice for anyone looking to expand, or begin, a Blu-ray orchestral collection. There’s a firm resolve to the opening march (if not the neurotic, possessed quality of Bernstein or Solti) and Alma’s theme soars. Abbado understands that the Sixth is Mahler’s most traditionally formulated work and there’s a powerful feel of coherent structure. Abbado plays the Andante moderato second; it provides a welcome sense of repose, relaxed but carefully shaped. The scherzo is darkly threatening. For the finale, the scale and sweep that Abbado summons up is a potent reminder of his stature among current Mahler conductors. It’s thrilling, an emotional rollercoaster, and by the end we’re as exhausted as the conductor is. The (two) hammer strokes are devastating. Wait until you see the size of the hammer that’s employed—this is definitely the sound Mahler had in mind.

The disc holding Symphony No. 1 begins with a scintillating performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Yuja Wang as soloist. Her playing is pristine, but never cold or clinical. That Abbado conducts without a score, as he does for the symphonies, sends the message that he views the work as no mere virtuoso vehicle to simply beat time for.

Technically, the results are variable, plus there are some snafus that must be mentioned. Multichannel provides considerable atmosphere and spaciousness for No. 1 and, especially, No. 6. But with the “Resurrection” BD, the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio option provides little in the way of increased dimensionality compared to the stereo program, and balances are less realistic here as well. Another oddity: The video format is billed as 16:9 but if your Blu-ray player is set to find the correct aspect ratio automatically, a 4:3 picture with pillars to the sides appears with Symphonies 1 and 2. This is clearly not what’s intended—the already gaunt conductor looks like a Giacometti sculpture. Changing the setting on your player to 16:9 (rather than “auto”) fixes the problem. I also must report that the “Resurrection” disc froze a couple of times in movements IV and V, necessitating ejection of the disc, starting over, and fast-forwarding to a point past where the music stopped. Kind of spoils the mood, to say the least. It might have been just my copy, but I’m disclosing the phenomenon nonetheless.

Mostly, the video presentation is outstanding. The director and film editor clearly know the score quite well and the visual content changes frequently and aptly—sometimes more than once a measure—but never jarringly. The only miscalculation is a bit of self-conscious artiness during the last movement of the “Resurrection” when the image goes blurry as off-stage brasses dominate the sonic picture.

Fanfare colleague Peter J. Rabinowitz put Abbado’s first Mahler Blu-ray release, Symphony No. 3, on his 2010 Want List, and the Lucerne Fourth with Magdalena Ko┼żená as soloist will have been released by the time you’re reading this. For the videophile Mahlerian, this could be the Blu-ray equivalent of the MTT/San Francisco SACD series. Check it out!

Jeffrey Kauffman, September 2010

Did Gustav Mahler feel odd, perhaps even guilty, espousing such a Christian concept as life after death in his gargantuan Second Symphony, subtitled “Resurrection”? Mahler was after all born a Jew and converted to Christianity in order to preserve his career. Though never an overly observant Jew, Mahler’s music is rife with cantorial tropes and has that peculiarly Jewish simultaneity of the comic and the tragic. Mahler’s huge orchestral canvasses segue seemingly effortlessly from the grandiose to the picayune, often within the breadth of a single measure. Mahler was perhaps the most death obsessed composer of his era, if not all time, with piece after piece questioning, either figuratively or literally, the individual’s demise. Though Otto Klemperer averred in his memoirs that Mahler was “irreligious,” the composer’s oeuvre certainly suggests otherwise. Piece after piece tackles huge philosophical, spiritual and even religious (in the most formalistic sense) questions, seeking answers where perhaps none are to be found. When Mahler converted to Catholicism in 1897, a prerequisite (as incredible as it may seem to us now) to obtain the post of Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera, it may seem in retrospect to be the crowning moment in a personal dialectic which had been brewing in Mahler’s psyche for years, and which found its most eloquent voice in the Second Symphony.

Death obsession is part and parcel of the Resurrection Symphony not just in its final form, but also in its creative genesis. The thrilling and desperate tremolo which starts the massive first movement, dissolving into a playfully minor theme (again the juxtaposition of the comic and tragic) had its compositional roots in an 1888 single movement symphonic piece Mahler titles Totenfeier (Death Celebration). As has been famously recounted, when Mahler came under the influence of Hans von Bülow a few years later and played a piano reduction of Totenfeier for the man who would ultimately become his father-in-law, von Bülow responded by remarking that Mahler’s attempt made Tristan and Isolde sound like a Haydn symphony. In fact it was von Bülow’s death and funeral which got Mahler past his writer’s block, introducing the composer to the text which would provide the inspiration for the choral finale of the Resurrection, the aptly named Die Auferstehung (“resurrection” in German) by the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.

This humongous five movement piece is a study in brilliantly conceived architecture, almost impossibly large and impossible to fully comprehend at the first (or even the tenth) listening. Conductor Claudio Abbado has long been linked to this piece, having made his debut at the Salzburg Festival with it some 40 years ago, and that long association with it means he conducts here sans score, able to devote his full attention to pacing and especially dynamics. From that tense opening, to the charming folk melody of the second movement’s Ländler, to the lightly lilting, if again minor-keyed, scherzo, Abbado brings out virtually every nuance of Mahler’s iconoclastic writing. But it’s in the final two sung movements that both the questioning of Mahler’s intrinsic questing soul, as well as some at least seeming answers, are finally offered up to the listener in an astoundnig array of glory and poignancy.

Anna Larsson appears almost out of nowhere to sing the Symphony’s achingly beautiful fourth movement, Ulricht (“Primeval Light”), a poem from Das Knaben Wunderhorn which provided Mahler with plentiful inspiration throughout his career. Here Larsson quietly seeks refuge as she sings:

O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

And then almost as suddenly, the hushed tones of the full chorus invite us into one of the longest, and most spiritually astute, final movements in the entire symphonic repertoire. Maher builds his forces slowly here, like a master mason adding layer upon layer until finally the gates of heaven themselves seem to open at the slow, steady march toward the final, overwhelming cadence in Eb, replete with clanging bells and a full-stopped organ. Abbado pulls out all the stops himself, lending an absolute fury to these final few moments that is nothing less than revelatory.

The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is made up of players from the continent’s finest ensembles, hand chosen by Abbado, and that level of expertise shines through in this performance. Each individual player seems invested with the importance of this score, often almost dancing in their chairs as they play through Mahler’s magnificently varied movements. It’s quite interesting to note the post-applause collegiality of this troupe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many hugs and kisses shared between a symphony orchestra as is on display here as the audience slowly begins to file out of the impressively sleek and modern Lucerne Culture and Convention Center. That level of camaraderie is needed for a piece this gargantuan, and luckily, it’s completely apparent and inherent in this impressive performance.

Euroarts provides a somewhat softer than usual MPEG-2 encoded 1080i image (in 1.78:1) on this concert taped in 2003. That said, colors are lifelike and well saturated and detail is very good to excellent, especially in the many close-ups. Best of all, there’s little to no interlacing artifacting to disturb the image, all the more impressive in that the Lucerne Cultural and Convention Center is filled with parallel lines in the architecture which could have devolved into aliasing. Coverage of the orchestra is excellent here, with fine attention paid to various soli, and the detail in the midrange and close-up shots of the players and Abbado is often superb, to the point where fingerprints on instruments can be seen. The dresses of Larsson and soprano soloist Eteri Gvazava, one red and one peach, also pop very nicely here, as do the choir’s white robes. But there isn’t the overall precision that we’ve come to expect from these HD concert videos, perhaps due to the age of the concert (2003) and the MPEG-2 compression codec.

I was frankly a little shocked to read one of the user reviews of this title and went back to double check my Blu-ray. I’m not sure if Euroarts went back to the drawing board for this US release, but all I can say is that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix on my disc does indeed fill the surrounds, especially the rear channels. What I do notice is a certain lack of discrete channel separation, which perhaps argues toward the problem discussed in our user’s review. I have also never heard the SD-DVD’s 5.1 mix, and so obviously cannot offer thoughts on the comparison. That said, there is clear separation at times here, notably the winds versus the strings in the opening movement. Anna Larsson is also clearly only in the front and rear channels in her solo, with the side channels supporting some of the orchestral elements. I also had no issue with fidelity, at least as it was reproduced on my Onkyo 7.1 system. While dynamic range is a bit problematic, I don’t think it rises to the “panic” level, at least not in my considered opinion. The quiet moments are precise and extremely spacious (especially the opening of the choral finale), while the many tuttis and huge crescendi bristle with sonic force and some excellent low end. If there is abundant limiting, it ultimately doesn’t signficantly destroy the many full force moments of this symphony. There is a certain lack of hall ambience in this 5.1 mix, which again may argue toward a repurposed stereo mix. The LPCM 2.0 stereo fold down is also quite good from a fidelity standpoint, but the narrower soundfield does not do justice to the contrapuntal majesty of Mahler’s writing here. I’ll err on the side of caution and give this release a 3.0 rating until we hear from other US users; I’m actually very interested to see if there is perhaps a difference between the US and UK releases. My personal opinion is the excellence of the performance helps to alleviate at least some of the ostensible problems in the recording itself.

There are no supplements on the Blu-ray (aside from trailers). The insert booklet’s very brief essay deals more with Abbado than with Mahler.

This relatively early piece of Mahler’s symphonic output harkens back to the playfully morose feeling of the First Symphony, while pointing all the way forward to the divine sung finale of the Ninth. This is a remarkable performance by Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra which I personally feel outweighs any recording issues. Recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, September 2010

Another winner in a set of three such releases and counting, similar to the first and just as well made, which means this is building into a potentially major HD Classical series.

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8:22:26 PM, 4 October 2015
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