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Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Yuja Wang and Claudio Abbado combine youth and experience in the Prokofiev and the combination is extremely successful. It transpires that Abbado saw Wang play the Liszt Piano Sonata on French television and was so impressed, comparing her with Martha Argerich no less, that he invited her to perform with him in March 2009 and again at that year’s Lucerne Festival. The Prokofiev Concerto was apparently Abbado’s choice of repertoire, but in the event he could not have chosen more happily as an opening for the concert.

Bob Briggs thought Wang’s recording of a very mixed recital of music by Stravinsky, Domenico Scarlatti, Brahms and Ravel a fantastic achievement (DG 477 8795, ‘Transformation’) though he was less impressed by the notes in the booklet. He takes the words that I was going to use of her Prokofiev out of my mouth when he uses such epithets as ‘stunning’ and ‘astonishing’ and when he writes of her playing like a demon and interpreting like an angel. All of which, despite my comments about seeing as against hearing, is clearly heightened by the vivid red dress which she wears—not the more sober one illustrated in the booklet.

There is very strong competition for recordings of the Concerto: Ashkenazy and Previn (all five concertos on Double Decca 452 5882) and Argerich and Dutoit (Nos. 1 and 3, plus Bartók No.3, EMI 556654) to name but the two most obvious. Abbado has performed this concerto with Martha Argerich, so it’s not surprising that he chose to accompany here the pianist whom he has compared with Argerich, with whom he recorded the work for DG in the 1960s. Only a slight tendency to rush at times prevents me from giving this combination the strongest possible recommendation.

Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra go together naturally and, since Abbado is also a veteran Mahler conductor of distinction who has performed and recorded the composer’s music with them so successfully, it’s hardly surprising that the partnership comes off so well again here. It’s almost invidious to select, but I’d choose as most significant the way in which Abbado stresses the music’s kinship with birdsong, his wholly natural use of rubato and, above all, his demonstration that this was a First Symphony in which the composer’s maturity is manifest—even Brahms didn’t achieve that, for all that he waited so long.

The performance of the finale brings the house down; it deserves and receives a tremendous ovation. If you began with any doubts about the order of the two works on the disc, you will soon forget them—to follow this Mahler First Symphony with anything else would be sacrilege. I shan’t be dumping my Kubelík CD, with its superb bonus of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (DG Originals 449 7352) but I shall be playing Abbado pretty frequently too.

With such excellent performances presented in such sharp picture quality—full 1080p on Blu-ray, which I imagine is superior to the DVD—and in such excellent sound, my only reservation must be the high price which Euroarts set on their DVD and Blu-ray recordings. In this case, the product is well worth the asking price: it’s not surprising that the DVD version was a best-seller for our partner suppliers at MDT last year.

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, January 2011

Gustav Mahler and Sergey Prokofiev might at first glance seem to be odd musical bedfellows, and yet upon closer examination, they really have more in common than might initially be expected. Both composers are inherently dramatic, with large sweeping melodies and a finely tuned ear for the unexpected chromatic dissonance. But what really unites them is their sardonic senses of humor, a trait that comes through quite clearly in a lot of their compositions. That astringent aspect is especially noteworthy (sorry, couldn’t resist) when one takes into account the tribulations both composers encountered through their professional and personal lives. Mahler of course was beset with all sorts of personal tragedies and at least occasional career setbacks, and he himself considered his writing as an avocation, with his conducting duties being his primary focus, at least in terms of making a living. If Prokofiev didn’t quite experience the level of sadness and even tragedy that Mahler did, he nonetheless found himself the victim—like his compatriot Shostakovich—of the vagaries of the Soviet system, when, to paraphrase Heidi Klum on Project Runway, “One day you’re in, the next, you’re out.” Both composers are also notoriously difficult to interpret and conduct, but Claudio Abbado has been at the forefront of recent Mahler releases, including this splendid cycle he’s been doing with his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and he adds a vigorous reading of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto to the mix on this Blu-ray. The Third, one of the most daunting in 20th century piano literature, is a propulsive and sometimes mechanistic piece that brings to mind some of the “industrial” sounding moments of Prokofiev’s symphonic oeuvre.

Abbado founded this iteration of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, in conjunction with the Festival’s Artistic and Executive Director Michael Haefliger. This ensemble consists of personally chosen soloists and ensemble members from the finest European orchestras and chamber groups, and that level of expertise shows in virtually every note the group plays. Abbado follows in the redolent footsteps of Arturo Toscanini, who founded the original Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 1938. Abbado and his players are joined in this recital by twenty two year old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, whose youthful exuberance matches some of the energy Prokofiev invested in this commanding piece.

The concert in fact begins with the Prokofiev Concerto, and right off the bat we’re privy to a gorgeously languid clarinet solo, just the tip of the orchestral iceberg in terms of incredibly nuanced soli which dot both this piece and the Mahler which follows. An ensemble at this level means each appointed soloist is most likely going to be presenting impeccable musicianship, and that’s certainly the case here. As the strings enter with their brisk ascending scales, and then Wang bursts in with the somewhat unexpected first statement from the piano, we’re off on a whirlwind tour through Prokofiev’s often biting wit and casually dissonant presence.

Wang is still rather young, and if she doesn’t quite have the interpretive capabilities of Lang Lang, she’s well on her way to proving herself one of the instrument’s new masters in waiting. Her phrasing is excellent, albeit occasionally a bit mushy and rushed, but in a piece this physically demanding, those passing issues are perhaps more readily understandable than they would be in a less challenging piece. The orchestra plays with an assured fluidity, and in fact Prokofiev doesn’t really relegate the orchestra to its typical “supporting” role in this concerto; it’s a full fledged partner here, and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra makes the most of that partnership.

Mahler’s First also receives a brilliant interpretation here. As is typical with Mahler’s Symphonic output, there’s a program of sorts which describes various images and ideas. As is also typical with Mahler, a lot of the symphony springs from the world of nature, with the first movement being a musical depiction of youth and spring. It wouldn’t be Mahler if this initial sunniness soon turned to darker despair, and indeed we get a second half which is subtitled “Human Comedy” but which also contains the soubriquets “Shipwrecked” and “Dell’inferno at Paradiso.” Mahler traipses through a sort of sardonic folk song ethos through much of this Symphony, evoking an almost Grimm’s Fairy Tale world of sound at times, where famous tunes like “Bruder Martin” get an ominous and minor reworking.

Abbado’s interpretive powers are top notch throughout this piece. He shapes his phrases carefully and expressively and delivers a visceral and vigorous experience. This is one of Mahler’s most easily accessible works, albeit perhaps not as “simple” sounding as the Fourth, but Abbado wrests every last drop of drama out of his reading of the score, and the orchestra plays fabulously throughout, though there were some perhaps surprising (if very, very brief) intonation problems from the horns and some unexpected brightness on occasion from the reeds.

Video Quality

This 2009 concert, like others in the Mahler cycle from EuroArts, arrives on Blu-ray with an MPEG-2 encode, in 1080i and 1.78:1. While there’s nothing horrible to report about this image, it really doesn’t pop with hi-def grandeur the way some other Naxos distributed titles have. While colors are relatively robust (and Wang’s bright red dress just barely manages to avoid blooming), there’s an overall softness to a lot of the image. Midrange and far range shots (the latter being a relative term, meaning from the back of the concert hall) are really nowhere near as sharp as they should be, and the far range shots are actually kind of a muddle, with no clear delineation of forms. Close-ups are quite a bit better, and the good news is this concert receives really smart coverage, with ample shots of various orchestral players and soloist Wang.

Audio Quality

Both of the lossless audio options offered on this disc are very well rendered. Both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 mixes sport brilliant fidelity and impressive dynamic range. The piano sounds marvelous on the Prokofiev, with no tinniness or overarching brightness. The DTS track amply supports the huge frequency ranges both composers use in these works, especially Prokofiev’s awesome spanning of the keyboard, often in massed clusters, all of which ring through with absolute clarity. As reported above, there are a few very brief issues on the Mahler, and the reeds at times sound overly bright, even a bit brash. Otherwise, this is a nicely burnished sounding mix that offers beautiful hall ambience and an inviting clarity throughout both performances.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Abbado’s Mahler cycle is turning out to be one of the glories of current classical music releases, and the First follows in that tradition admirably. The Prokofiev is a brisk and demanding piece which receives an athletic interpretation here and which makes a surprisingly facile companion to the Mahler First. Recommended.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, November 2010

Here is another fine overall Blu-ray production. Though listed first on the front of the case, the Mahler first symphony is saved for the final selection here and what an outstanding performance it is! The Prokofiev concerto is play by Yuja Wang. The attractive pianist does a good solid job with this piano showpiece and I have little reason to complain. Unfortunately I attended a live performance of the same piece last season featuring the justly famous Lang Lang. This fine performance simply is not the equal of Lang Lang’s. About a dozen years ago, in print, I predicted that Lang Lang would become the best pianist of the first half of the twenty-first century. I can still easily recommend this solid performance as good and basically the equal of what can routinely be expected to be heard in most concert halls. Here any subtle failings are certainly compensated for by the superb Mahler performance. We can not realistically expect two great performances on a single night and recorded then on to a single disc. Things do not simply happen that way in my experiences so far.

Listening to the simply excellent performance of Mahler’s first symphony kind of set me up for what I finally got to view on the next listening session by switching on the quite excellent Blu-ray video track.

Abbado’s demeanor, expressions and ultimately actions, made it clear to me that he was getting everything he wanted from this excellent group of musicians. The sound quality via HDMI multi channel output was seemingly without fault on my fairly modest home theater system. Double checking with my far more expensive reference stereo system revealed surprisingly similar audio quality. The home theater depends on a top of the line Onkyo receiver feeding a 7.2 set up of Nola loudspeakers. The Oppo BD-83 SE upgraded by VSEI’s Music Technology’s Bill Thalmann provided the input and a stock Samsung BD-6500 player fed the separate (otherwise reference quality) stereo system. It features Keith Herron’s latest upgraded tubed preamplifier and new solid state power amplifiers that pretty much neutrally add gain to drive the Genesis Technology tower models G6.1 loudspeakers. An audio and video Blu-ray gem of the highest possible recommendation is the result here. I also received the Blu-ray disc featuring the same forces as here performing Mahler’s sixth symphony. I expect to review it for the next issue of PFO.

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5:08:42 PM, 29 August 2015
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