, March 2011
A very fine surround recording combined with unobtrusive camerawork in excellent HD allow the performance to be enjoyed free of most technical distractions. I did need to reduce the rear channels one or two dB to avoid particularly the trombones and horns sounding as if they were behind me. This done, technical issues were forgotten. The recording dates suggest that this was the result of two performances edited together. I imagine this would only become obvious if one studied the audience for changes. I noticed no editing whatsoever during an emotionally charged 70 minutes of listening and viewing.
Performances of this quality do not come along very often. Such is the power of Abbado’s performance that Part 1 (the first two movements) left me so moved I had to take a break before proceeding to the remaining two parts, or three movements. The majority of other performances I have heard have tended to structure the performance in three sections like this: (a) Trauermarsch, (b) Second Movement and Scherzo, (c) Adagietto and Rondo Finale. Mahler’s own division has the first two movements as Part 1, the Scherzo as Part 2 and the Adagietto and Rondo as Part 3. This is the pattern that emerges from Abbado’s performance on this disc. There is a minimum break after a shattering Trauermarsch but a full pause for genteel coughing at the start and finish of the Scherzo. The audience in the Lucerne Hall are as silent as one could wish during the music, allowing the huge dynamics of Abbado’s hand-picked orchestra to tell. What other orchestra boasts members of an internationally renowned string quartet in its ranks plus a list of other orchestral luminaries from all over the world? The string section is not only very large but also play with a passion and unanimity that makes one feel privileged to hear them. There are countless details of phrasing and dynamics that could not be achieved by the conductor unless he knows his musicians understand. That they do understand is clear not only from their playing but from their expressions and from the frequency of their glances toward the conductor: an exemplar of unanimity. This being a film one can view Mahler’s frequent requests for the woodwind and horns to raise their instruments, and view Abbado as he conducts from memory a score that, even by Mahler’s standards, is hugely complex—the composer was still refining it at the very end of his life. It is a mystery to many concertgoers what a conductor actually does and I regret to say this riddle will not be solved by the present issue. If anything the mystery will be intensified as one watches Abbado apparently drawing exactly what he wants from well over a hundred musicians by some extra-sensory means. It is fascinating to watch.
The great performances are those by Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic, Barbirolli with the Philharmonia, Inbal and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and possibly Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. I have no hesitation in placing this Blu-ray disc in this illustrious company and adding that the sound beats all except MTT/SFS and that, uniquely, there are pictures with this disc plus an orchestra made in heaven, if that is a valid canton of Switzerland.