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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, March 2011

Claudio Abbado’s much-praised Mahler cycle with his hand-picked Lucerne orchestra is almost complete. And what a journey it’s been, made all the more poignant—and compelling—by the maestro’s battle with cancer. That said, his gaunt features are transformed once he’s on the podium, shaking his fist at the raging storm as it were. The fanfare and aural earthquake at the start of the symphony have seldom sounded more seismic, the dynamics so wide. And that’s pretty much what this Mahler Fifth is all about, huge emotional swings essayed with superhuman strength by this remarkable maestro and band.

Abbado is a master of the long span, the inner workings of the first movement laid bare by his forensic probing. The agitated chatter and jabbing rhythms of the second movement are as arresting as I’ve ever heard them, the ensuing music a welcome shelter from the elements. What really impresses me about Abbado’s Mahler—this latest cycle especially—is the sheer logic of his readings; these are lean performances, without superfluous gesture or expressive underlining, and the results are enthralling.

The DVD picture clear, the camerawork unobtrusive, and the sound—in its stereo PCM form at least—is very good indeed. The weight and amplitude of this symphony really does call for all the dynamic range the engineers can muster, and I’m delighted to say that’s exactly what they deliver. There’s warmth and detail as well, especially in the delectable Ländler and pin-sharp pizzicati of the Scherzo, not to mention the honeyed string sounds of the Adagietto. There’s no dewy-eyed sentimentality here, the music most naturally paced and phrased.

But it’s the Rondo-Finale that takes one’s breath away; from its deceptively gentle opening through to that crowning chorale—it’s seldom sounded so shattering, so blazingly affirmative—this is music-making of the highest order. The Lucerne band performs like the finely engineered instrument it is, and I seriously doubt this music could be played with more authority and commitment than it is here.

If you’re new to Mahler and/or this symphony then this DVD is a must-buy, if only for the performance.

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, March 2011


I reviewed these concert performances for Fanfare when they were first released (Beethoven in 33:1 and Mahler in 29:1). What’s new is the format; these DVDs are part of a new EuroArts series with the overall title Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music. The performances are accompanied by a documentary that places the work within its composer’s life and the larger historical context. The video is in a widescreen (16:9) aspect, and the audio is available in PCM stereo, Dolby, and DTS 5.1 surround. English, German, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided for each documentary.

The documentaries are the standard combination of narration, commentary from contemporary sources, and lecture. In the case of the Beethoven, the work is examined movement by movement with explication provided by Wulf Konold and the musical examples illustrated by Abbado’s performance (Konold’s German is subtitled for non-German speakers). The explication should be comprehensible to anyone with a modicum of musical knowledge; excerpts from the printed score are used sparingly but usefully. I noticed one interesting anomaly: Konold explains that instead of repeating the Scherzo, fanfare and all, Beethoven provides the innovative transitional passage that leads to the finale. However, Abbado’s performance includes the optional full repeat of Scherzo and Trio.

The Mahler documentary follows the same template. Jeremy Barham provides somewhat redundant examples from the piano, since the excerpts from Abbado’s performance cover the same passages (though the piano examples illuminate the principal themes and may be easier for beginners to follow). Some of the narration is almost inaudible, though, vying as it does with the orchestra in full cry—an unfortunate weakness in this production.

For those of us raised on Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert broadcasts, these documentaries will seem dry, offering a few insights but few revelations and little of the personality of the incomparable Lenny. I also prefer the more insightful and colorful Keeping Score series from MTT and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. As volumes for a basic library of great music, though, these DVDs are more than adequate, mostly due to the superb performances by Abbado.

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3:55:57 AM, 11 October 2015
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