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Brian Buerkle
American Record Guide, March 2011

…the crème de la crème of orchestral musicians. Add Claudio Abbado’s leadership and you have a series that is unlikely to be challenged for many years to come. The video is absolutely first rate, with wonderful picture and crystal clear sound. This is a tremendous performance.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

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, October 2010

Classical music is usually seen by outsiders as the refuge of the intelligentsia, the patrician class which always knows best (or at least thinks they do) and is unequivocally correct in its artistic pursuits and decisions. I wonder what outsiders would make of the somewhat humorous more or less century long dispute about how to order the inner movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The symphony itself is rife with contradictions. It gained the soubriquet “Tragic,” rightly or wrongly, even though it was written during one of the few times of out and out happiness for Mahler. That said, its finale is “catastrophic,” to paraphrase the liner notes included on this Blu-ray release, completely at odds with most of Mahler’s other tempestuous symphonies, which tend to end either with triumphant shouts of orchestral acclamation or a sort of blissfully quiet resignation. The sixth also is one of Mahler’s most traditionally structured large scale works, with actual precise sonata-allegro forms filling the aural landscape in several movements, which makes the brouhaha about how to place the Andante and Scherzo all the more amusing, at least to those with a perhaps jaded sense of humor.

One of the unusual things about the Sixth, at least in its original conception, was Mahler’s placement of the Scherzo as the second movement. A scherzo or dance movement is of course traditionally reserved for the “number three” spot in a Symphony, but Mahler twisted convention, placing his Adagio third. However, Mahler had second thoughts, and conducting his own premieres of the Sixth over the course of several months, he put the Adagio back in its traditional second movement place, and the Scherzo in its traditional third movement location. Though the piece had been published with the Scherzo second and the Andante third, Mahler requested that “Errata” slips be inserted in scores which had already come off the printing presses, perhaps because “I changed my mind” didn’t sound quite as plausible. The Symphony continued with this form for the rest of Mahler’s lifetime, but after his death, things got considerably crazier. His widow Alma evidently indicated that Mahler had had “second second thoughts” and wanted the symphony performed in its original published form, with the Scherzo second. Debate continued over the ensuing decades, with some conductors choosing one version and others liking the other. However, when German musicologist Erwin Ratz published his Critical Edition of the Sixth in 1962, he decided that the original published order was correct, and for some reason the bulk of the classical music field fell into lockstep behind him, with the bulk of performances following his edict. Of course, critics and their Critical Editions were born to be questioned, and over time, Ratz’s decision came to be seen as more or less arbitrary, and the pendulum has swung back to at least the middle position—i.e., some conductors doing the Sixth Scherzo-Andante, and others vice versa—if not totally to the Andante-Scherzo side of the equation.

So of course the burning question remains: what is Claudio Abbado’s decision on this stellar performance with his hand picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, an assembly of first chair musicians from the finest ensembles around Europe? It’s Andante-Scherzo, ladies and gentlemen, the way Mahler wanted it, insisted it should be done, and had his publisher change the score to reflect. What those who insist on doing this piece Scherzo-Andante seem not to realize (or perhaps to willfully ignore) is the similarity between the First Movement of the Sixth and the Scherzo. With the Scherzo coming directly after the First Movement, it almost seems like a joking sort of long-form coda, not that that would be counter to Mahler’s often subversive artistic proclivities. But with the langorous Andante interpolated between the two movements, we have a chance to experience the differences between the First and Third movements, rather than their somewhat pointed similarities.

The Sixth, as stated above, may indeed be the most formally traditional of all of Mahler’s symphonic output (if one puts aside the ridiculous browbeating over how to order the movements). That said, it is typically Mahlerian in virtually every way, with both mordant humor and incredibly lyrical expressionism cohabitating side by side in an emotionally tempestuous manner. Much has been made of Mahler’s “fate” motif, which colors the bookending First and Fourth movements, and it is hard not to think of this Symphony as somehow a 20th century “answer” to Beethoven’s Fifth. The martial strains of the First Movement, however, have just as often made me think of the similarly militaristic strains of some of Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s work, some of which came a half century after Mahler, proving his musical prescience.

In fact that prophetic quality of Mahler has long been used as an excuse, more or less, to subtitle the Symphony “Tragic,” though Mahler never himself called the piece by that name. Though the Sixth was written in a time of near euphoria for the composer, a state he all too rarely experienced, within weeks of its premiere, one of his daughters had died, the composer himself had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he was forced to resign from the most prestigious musical job on the continent, Music Director of the Vienna State Opera. Perhaps more importantly, if less personally, the Sixth seems to presage a world about to drop precipitously into the abyss of world war. Tonalities clutter to the ground in clashing dissonance, and even the Second Movement’s attempts at a sylvan refuge seems but a fleeting dream, a chimera of hope surrounded by the cynical First and Third movements.

Abbado has become the go-to conductor for Mahler, and especially the Sixth, a symphony for which he seems to have a special affinity, perhaps because of his many health issues over the past several years. His conducting here is forceful yet incredibly nuanced, guiding his unbelievably skilled players through one architecturally astute climax after another. The lyrical Second Movement has probably never been more lovingly lugubrious, and the brittle outer movements are crisp without ever descending into self-parody.

The controversy over how to order Mahler’s Sixth is probably never going to die down. After all, the intelligentsia like nothing more than to think about knotty problems. Solutions aren’t half as much fun. Luckily conductors like Abbado come along every so often to hush the arguing masses and make them sit back and actually listen to the music for a change.

Video Quality

Despite being encoded with the older MPEG-2 protocol, Mahler: Symphony No. 6 looks decently sharp, with excellent detail, especially in the close-ups, in its 1080i 1.78:1 presentation. This 2006 performance is in the ultramodern Lucerne Festival Hall, a gleaming white palace of horizontal lines which never dissolves into aliasing. The orchestral coverage here is fantastic, with all of Mahler’s quasi-soli, sectional and otherwise, captured brilliantly by the multiple cameras. While flesh tones are just a bit on the anemic side, detail is quite good throughout, so that every fiber on some of the violin bows can be seen, and reflections in the bells of the brass are clear, if bizarre looking.

Audio Quality

This new Blu-ray is given two lossless audio options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and an LPCM 2.0 fold down. This is an exceptionally well recorded piece, with some brilliant separation and, even better, an attention to detail when various instruments are highlighted visually. Individual instruments are solidly placed around the soundfield, and should a section show up for a moment onscreen, the mix adjusts accordingly, if subtly. Overall, the hall ambience is nicely reverberant, giving just enough space around the crushing tutti sections to keep things from sonically bleeding. Playing here simply couldn’t be better. I was especially won over by the incredible reeds on display here, with impeccably facile playing from the clarinets and oboes. But as in all Mahler symphonies, the strings and the horns take over for large swaths of individual movements, and the DTS track supports them brilliantly, offering crystal clear fidelity and some really impressive dynamic range.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements are included on the disc. The insert booklet has the requisite excellent essay.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Scherzo, schmerzo. Abbado takes control of not just how to order the movements, but how to order the whole Symphony. This is a brilliantly measured performance which evokes both the lyrical tenderness and the world weary cynicism that seem to exist side by side eternally in Mahler’s writing. The unparalleled excellence of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra makes this performance very, very special. Highly recommended.

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7:24:47 PM, 4 September 2015
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