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Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, March 2011

Yuja Wang’s career has been going from strength to strength. This is a 2009 performance of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, a work she has toured with—including a London performance. The opening (orchestra only) is beautifully shaped by Abbado and his forces. Wang, clad strikingly in red, has just the right touch for Prokofiev. Quicksilver responses enable her to change attack in the middle of rapid-fire semiquavers. Abbado conducts minus baton, expressively and faultlessly; the return of the slower opening brings a truly climactic sense of arrival, while avoiding anything remotely filmic. The most complex passages are lucidly given here. The orchestra is better drilled than any I have heard in this concerto. The variations of the central movement come initially as balm. Gorgeous string sighs and cheeky bassoon comments set the mood, while the structurally delineating wind chords are perfectly balanced. Spiky articulation from Wang brings character to the movement. True stasis also enters the argument as Wang weaves gossamer decorations. The build-up to the end of the movement is heavy and carries with it a sense of inevitability—indeed, it seems indestructible.

The finale takes the “ma non troppo” caveat of the Allegro tempo indication seriously. There is a slight heaviness in its tread which is entirely apposite. Wang’s technique is beyond criticism—and I include her handling of the slow portions of the movement in this statement. The communication between Wang and Abbado verges at times on the telepathic. It is clear that the high-profile occasion has inspired all parties to something special. Abbado has been here before, on disc: with Argerich, famously, but also with Kissin. This version with Wang stands with its head high in such company.

The Mahler is an Abbado favourite. He conducts without score, and again without baton. The Lucerne orchestra, despite its high-profile make-up, is not all about technical excellence. The mystery of the opening (“Wie ein Naturlaut”) nearly suspends time. Muted horns are beautifully distanced: the music takes ages to come into focus; it does so at the cello statement for the theme from the Winderhorn song, “Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld”. The exuberance is infectious, the sense of Spring-like warmth almost palpable. String tone is burnished; woodwind are perky and sprightly. The great climax towards the end finds the horns in fine fettle—imposingly loud, but perfectly balanced within the section.

Camera-work flicks from one section to soloist and so on too quickly for my liking in the rustic second movement. Better perhaps to close the eyes and savour the music, particularly the marvellously restful Trio.

Abbado’s pacing and dynamic shaping of the slow movement is positively masterful, the Jewish elements coming to the fore almost in the manner of a Bernstein. The Urschrei that opens the finale is bloody and massive. “Massive” is the right word for Abbado’s conception of the finale, and yet it never sprawls—as it so often can. The route to the final peroration is expertly tracked. Most memorable, perhaps, are the quieter plateaux, where Abbado’s daring enables held-breath tension to take over the experience. The conductor’s smile in the final moments—he’s shown just before the horns stand up—is almost worth the price of the DVD alone. I remain less convinced of his decision to conduct in circles towards the end, but this hardly diminishes his achievement. This is a tremendous, glowing performance of the Mahler; the Prokofiev is almost as special.

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, January 2011

This DVD presents two quite disparate works, but each is worth the price of admission on its own. These live concerts from the Lucerne Festival are an opportunity for Abbado to revisit his repertoire, and for us listeners to savor the resultant performances. The video picture is high-definition quality, and the sound production is available in PCM stereo and DTS or Dolby surround sound.

The Prokofiev appears first on the program. Abbado, a Prokofiev specialist of impeccable credentials, last recorded the Third Piano Concerto in 1993 with Evgeny Kissin for DG (his 1967 performance with Martha Argerich is an acknowledged classic). With the exhilarating Yuja Wang, the athletic and sprightly characteristics of the music are most prominent. The first movement is taken at a brisk tempo, its rhythmic energy and trenchant attacks tossed off with aplomb by the diminutive dynamo at the keyboard. The more contemplative music at the heart of the movement isn’t subject to the same treatment, though, and Wang is just as convincing here as well. At the conclusion of the scintillating coda, the pianist casts a puckish smile at the conductor.

Taking her cue from the rhapsodic central theme of the first movement, Wang delves just as deeply into the music of the second movement, which enters the same shadowy world as the Second Concerto, particularly in the Andantino meditativo. Any tendency toward schmaltz is negated by the martial strains of the orchestra, played with precision by Abbado’s hand-picked band. The finale returns us to the bright-hued circus world of the first movement. Wang’s no-nonsense performing demeanor is admirable; one marvels at the commanding presence of this 23-year-old, whose undemonstrative technique lends a deceptively effortless quality to her playing.

This interpretation is (apparently) primarily that of the soloist: Abbado appears to defer to her, looking over his left shoulder in the direction of the pianist quite frequently. The sound is sparkling and clear, the piano dead center in the mix but not overly prominent, well integrated into the orchestra.

Abbado has all but completed his survey of the Mahler symphonies with the Lucerne orchestra in this video series, begun in 2003 with the Second (a Ninth performed by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra is a sort of step-relation to the others); all that remains is the Eighth, a festival work if ever there was one. Those readers who are familiar with Abbado’s Mahler series with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG (or his older one, featuring several orchestras, also on DG) will know what to expect here: a unique approach to the works that combines the best elements of the more objective styles of Haitink or Boulez with the emotional impact of Bernstein or Tilson Thomas. The musicians who comprise the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are the equals of just about anyone you could name, and they obviously relish their performances with Abbado, their founder and mentor.

Abbado is clearly in his element, basking in the sunny glow and infectious energy of the first two movements of the Mahler symphony. He now conducts sans baton, and appears to be dancing with the orchestra as much as leading it. As with the other performances in this series, Abbado puts his whole body and spirit into his conducting; in comparison to the (quite fine) Mahler recordings with the BPO, there is a vitality and depth to these versions from Lucerne that makes them among the most compelling to be had in any medium.

If you’ve been following this series on EuroArts, you will need no further incentive to add this new volume to your collection. If either of these works is tempting, you should consider purchasing this DVD; you won’t readily find performances to surpass those on offer here.

Robert Benson, December 2010

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kozena, Abbado) (NTSC) 2057988
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 1 / PROKOFIEV, S.: Piano Concerto No. 3 (Yuja Wang, Abbado) (NTSC) 2057968

Here are…major releases featuring Claudio Abbado. The first two are from the Lucerne Festival with the hand-picked virtuoso orchestra comprised of leading musicians from around the world. The all-Mahler program was recorded August 21–22, 2009; the Mahler/Prokofiev August 11–15, 2009. Abbado is a master of Mahler. He already has recorded Symphony No. 1 both in Chicago and Berlin, Symphony No. 4 in Vienna and Berlin—and there is a DVD with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Magdalena Kozená is perfect in the five Rückert-Lieder, and lightens her voice appropriately for the finale of Symphony No. 4. The only disappointing performance is Yuja Wang’s playing of the Prokofiev. The young Chinese pianist made a remarkable disk called “Tansformations”, but here she is efficient rather than dazzling. Abbado is ever attentive to her in his accompaniment (a concerto he recorded in Berlin with both Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin), but she never looks up from the keyboard. Video and audio are excellent on both of these DVDs although it is surprising that the Blu-Ray version of the Mahler/Prokofiev coupling doesn’t have the vivid color usually associated with the process.

My Classical Notes, November 2010

Sergey Prokofiev was 20 years old when Gustav Mahler died in 1911. As such, it is likely that Prokofiev may well have been aware of what Gustav Mahler was accomplishing on the musical scene in Central Europe and in the US. As such, it is not only interesting but also quite appropriate to place the music of these two composers on the same program. This DVD was recorded live at the Concert Hall of the Culture and Convention Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland, on the 12th of August 2009.

Symphony No. 1 in D major ‘Titan’

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26

Performed by Yuja Wang, piano, and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, conductor.

The opening of this concert gives us an opportunity to experience the spectacular début of the twenty-two-year-old pianist Yuja Wang playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. In her Lucerne appearances she displayed the full range of her artistry as Prokofiev’s composition demands not only lyricism and intimacy but also a lot of brilliance and strong virtuosity of pianistic skills.

Mahler, in his First Symphony, created his musical vision of an entire human life in four stages—from a spring-like upsurge of feelings through desire and suffering, to the end of earthly existence and the entrance into Paradise.

Claudio Abbado is undeniably an amazing Mahler conductor, and his recordings with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra—symphonies No. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9—have already set new standards in interpretation of works by Gustav Mahler.

Brian Buerkle
American Record Guide, November 2010

Yuja Wang is a vivacious 23-year-old. She handles the sudden metric changes of Prokofieff’s Concerto with ease—which is no small feat considering the breakneck speed of her playing. Abbado has truly outdone himself here. This recording trumps both of his previous accounts (Chicago Symphony & Berlin Philharmonic on DG)—excellent as they both were.

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

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