James L. Zychowicz
, May 2009
Recorded live in concert on 19 August 2007, this performance of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony by Claudio Abbado is part of the conductor’s cycle involving the Lucerne Festival.
Like the DVD of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which was already released, this one of the Third conveys the energy of the live performance. From the start, various details become evident, as with the presence onstage from the start of the soloist Anna Larsson and also the choruses in the balcony above the stage. Likewise, the cameras catch in the opening minutes of the first movement the prominently raised bells of the French horns, as indicated in the score with the marking “Schalltrichter auf” (“bells up”). Beyond the adherence to such markings, the playing is energetic from the start, with vigorous bowing in the strings, to create the full and incisive sound characteristic of this performance. At the same time, the quieter effects are clearly present, and it is useful to have the camera focus, for example, on the timpani passage, which is to be played softly. The softer sound is no mistake, and the film confirms the sound with the visual image. Elsewhere, it is possible to see the ways in which Abbado achieves his fine result, as with the cloth cover in the bells of the trumpets and trombones certain passages of the Finale, a variation on the way in which some conductors sometimes have the brass play into the music stands.
Yet it is details like these that set apart Abbado’s performance in this recording from other performances of this Symphony. His sense of the form of the expansive first movement brings the various thematic ideas together convincingly. At the point in the score just before the reprise that signals the concluding section, Abbado achieves a the notated dynamic level without sacrificing precision or control. Rather, the softer volume allows the ensemble to articulate the musical ideas with welcome precision as Abbado brings the movement to an exciting and resonant conclusion.
Similar details emerge in the second movement, which follows relatively quickly after the first movement. While Mahler marked the score to have a break of at least five minutes between those two movements, absolute precision with the timing is not necessary, as evident here. It is useful for the orchestra to regroup, as it were, before proceeding with the second movement and thus to convey to shift of mood in this orchestral idyll. Some of the figuration evident here evokes connections with the accompaniment of the song “Das himmlische Leben,” which Mahler used as the Finale of the Fourth Symphony and was, at one time, considered for inclusion in the third. Elsewhere the string writing suggests the reflective tone Mahler had achieved in the second movement of the Second Symphony. Here, though, the ensemble brings about the precision which allows the shifting colors of the movement to be heard cleanly.
At the center of the Third Symphony are three movements which have vocal connections: the third movement is a Scherzo in which Mahler makes use of his Wunderhorn setting “Ablősung im Sommer”; the setting for alto of a text from Nietsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra; and the Wunderhorn poem “Es sungen drei Engel” for alto and chorus. Abbado makes the lyrical element apparent without belaboring, and this is nicely balanced in the third movement. In that piece the closeups of the woodwinds reveal the engagement of the players as they work together in tight ensemble. The result is a distinctive execution of the accompaniment which allows the cantabile line to emerge with ease. In fact, the intensity Abbado has given to the third movement is remarkable for the way it brings out thematic ideas that are often found in analysis, but not often made so audible. In bringing out the vocal elements, Abbado allows the motives in the accompaniment to be heard distinctly. At the same time some of the figures anticipate ideas that Mahler will pursue in the subsequent movements of this work, as with the motives in the timpani, which will be heard in augmentation in the Finale. Throughout this movement, the Abbado carefully follows the dynamics, so that the climax is precisely where the composer wanted it, and this leads directly to the conclusion of this remarkable Scherzo.
With the fourth movement, Anna Larsons is heard for the first time in this work, and her interpretation of Nietzsche’s “O Mensch, gib acht” is impressive for the singer’s engagement with the text. The accompaniment may seem louder than sometimes occurs in the concert hall, and this might be the result of the recording techniques. Even so, the balance between the vocal part and the instrumental accompaniment is effective, with the closing measures of the movement appropriately reserved. The relatively quiet ending stands in contrast to the ringin’ opening of the choral movement which follows. Here, again, the sound is relatively close and perhaps louder than one usually hears in a live performance. Nevertheless the solid recording techniques allow the choral sound to blend nicely with the orchestra beneath it. While the solo part for Larsons is relatively short, it shows the mezzo soprano in fine style as she sings the part of the repentant Saint Peter in this Wunderhorn setting.
In bringing the work to its conclusion, Abbado contributes a well-thought pacing to the slow movement with which the Third Symphony ends. While never belaboring the slow tempos, Abbado is also keen to allow for some flexibility, as with the motive in the horns near the beginning of the movement, which requires the agitato approach he has given it. The pauses which Abbado brings to the movement are entirely appropriate to the musical structure and also the resonant sonorities he achieves in the performance. This and other nuances in tempo are essential the movement, and Abbado is particularly effective in this regard. Within the larger structure of the slow movement, the individual sections that comprise have shape and, as individual units, contribute to the whole. At the core of the movement is the warm, rich string sound, which is quite apparent in this recording. The intensity of the playing, along with Abbado’s fine direction results in an outstanding performance of this movement.
This film of the Third Symphony shows the hall in a brighter light than evident on some other videos from Abbado’s Lucerne cycle, and this allows for some fine shots of the orchestra, along with Abbado himself. The conductor’s presence can be visually more convincing with the audience around him, rather than as a silhouette with an almost black background. At some points the lighting makes it possible to read the music on the instrumentalists’ stands, an element that contributes to the overall sense of the live performance. It is, however, unfortunate, that the blue exit signs in the hallways are sometimes prominent. This is a minor point, but in a video this compelling, such a detail emerges along with the other, positive ones.
The accompanying booklet is lists the movements, timings, principals, and some production details, without the extensive notes that sometimes occur. Werner Pfister’s short essay “Selige Zuversicht” (“Blissful Trust,” as translated here), is useful in giving some perspectives on the aims of the Lucerne Festival and Abbado’s aims with this specific performance. Pfister’s comment that “Abbado’s Mahler is precisely calculated and at the same time intuitively felt” bears explication, though. Some of the connotations of “kalkuliert” in English suggest the pejorative, and it is clear that the precision Abbado achieves serves his purpose in bringing to his audience a thorough and reliable reading of the score. No matter what the program notes state about it, listeners have the opportunity to hear for themselves how well Abbado performs Mahler’s Third Symphony.
Several DVD performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony exist, but this one by Abbado stands out as particularly effective for its impeccable interpretation and execution. A challenging work because of its length and the range of music within it, the Third sometimes reaches audiences with some elements wanting, and that is not the case in this recent release. One of the foremost conductors of his generation, Abbado demonstrates yet again his masterful approach to Mahler’s demanding scores in this festival performance of the Third Symphony. The rhythmic applause and extended ovation at the end are certainly an appropriate response to the efforts of Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.