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Andrew Quint
Fanfare, May 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kozena, Abbado) (NTSC) 2057988
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kozena, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2057984

Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra certainly do not disappoint as they reach the halfway point in what will hopefully be a complete video traversal of the Mahler symphonies. The star of the show, however, is Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. She and Abbado open the program with the Rückert-Lieder, the ensemble’s string section reduced to chamber-orchestra proportions. The singer communicates a powerful connection to the texts; there are facial expressions and body gestures you’d expect in a stage production but they never seem excessive. Her voice is beautifully controlled, expansive, and expressive: “Um Mitternacht” is every bit the spiritual journey Thomas Hampson made it in his recent version with Michael Tilson Thomas, and is deeply moving. As much for Abbado’s transcendent orchestral shaping as for Kožená’s luminous singing, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” is deeply moving—they convey a profound sense of inner peace.

The opening movement of Symphony No. 4 emphasizes an often underplayed anxious quality: Trouble may be waiting just around the corner, even when the sun is shining. For movement 2, we see the concertmaster exchange his usual instrument for one with an alternate tuning, as Mahler directs—the sound with his solos is tense and earthy. The emotional contour of “Ruhevoll” underscores Abbado’s affinity for this composer. He begins simply, calmly, without any sense of worry, and then leads us in and out of dark places. Kožená’s vocalism is again lovely in the finale, manifesting a wide-eyed amazement as she details the specifics of life in heaven.

The cinematography, employing a plethora of camera angles, has been carefully thought out. It’s obvious that the musicians find Abbado easy to follow. His motions are clear and economical, rather than a display of self-aggrandizing conductorial theatricality. It’s remarkable how many of the instrumentalists are smiling as they play and not the least bit surprising that two female violinists embrace after the conclusion of the symphony; their pleasure with having participated in this musical event is palpable. Sonically, the spatial difference between stereo and the 5.1 multichannel is less pronounced than usual—and that’s meant as praise for the two-channel option. The program is available on DVD as well as Blu-ray, though why you’d chose the former in this day and age is beyond me, so superior is the high-definition image with the newer format.




David Gutman
Gramophone, February 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kožená, Abbado) (NTSC) 2057988
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kožená, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2057984

Gramophone Recommends

Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are on sensational form

That Claudio Abbado should be ending his career delivering standard repertoire as super-refined chamber music to the well-heeled has unsettled some commentators but his is a glorious example of his latter-day music-making in a programme which suits the softer grain completely. You can scarcely imagine this unassuming maestro ripping his score to shreds as did Arturo Toscanini while rehearsing Wagner for the Lucerne Festival on the brink of the Second World War. The latter’s scratch band was stuffed with luminaries including the members of the Busch Quartet; Abbado’s 2009 line-up has the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra at its core and is quite simply beyond praise. There are innumerable incidental beauties from all sections: the woodwind nothing short of sublime, the brass tactfully reticent, the strings perhaps most remarkable of all with their radiant pianissimos. The conductor’s previous audio recordings of the work for DG (6/78 with Frederica von Stade, 1/06 with Renée Fleming) are, for me at least, comprehensively outclassed. The mood is more relaxed and the contribution of Magdalena Kožená in the finale a definite plus. She may not be a natural for childlike wonder by she sings with consummate technical control and intellectual understanding.

If the Rückert-Lieder seem a little cool at first, the astonishing subtlety and tact of the orchestral response inspires Kožená to a rapt account of “Ich bin der Welt”, perhaps the finest since Janet Baker and John Barbirolli famously collaborated in these songs (EMI, 2/68). The fact that the soloist is sometimes marginally ahead of musicians whose every phrase is shaped to jewel-like perfection only goes to show that these renditions are pretty much “as heard” in the hall.

Visually things are less happy. The filming is conventional in style but old Abbado hands could be distressed by his extreme frailty. Meanwhile Kožená’s tanned face and pink décolletage seem ill-matched and you may take against her wild-eyed gurning, something I hadn’t noticed before in live performances witnessed from the cheaper seats. You can always turn off the visuals although, usefully, subtitles are provided. Sonically, it is just a little dry, possibly a faithful reflection of the much-lauded sound in the venue.

Abbado’s ability to create a frisson at the outset of the Adagietto of the Fifth is trumped here by the instantaneous rapture he magics at the start of the Fourth’s slow movement. Sceptics should sample without delay. Here is profoundly affecting artistry which for once lives up to the hype.




David Gutman
Gramophone, February 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kožená, Abbado) (NTSC) 2057988
MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 / Ruckert-Lieder (Kožená, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2057984

Gramophone Recommends

Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are on sensational form

That Claudio Abbado should be ending his career delivering standard repertoire as super-refined chamber music to the well-heeled has unsettled some commentators but his is a glorious example of his latter-day music-making in a programme which suits the softer grain completely. You can scarcely imagine this unassuming maestro ripping his score to shreds as did Arturo Toscanini while rehearsing Wagner for the Lucerne Festival on the brink of the Second World War. The latter’s scratch band was stuffed with luminaries including the members of the Busch Quartet; Abbado’s 2009 line-up has the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra at its core and is quite simply beyond praise. There are innumerable incidental beauties from all sections: the woodwind nothing short of sublime, the brass tactfully reticent, the strings perhaps most remarkable of all with their radiant pianissimos. The conductor’s previous audio recordings of the work for DG (6/78 with Frederica von Stade, 1/06 with Renée Fleming) are, for me at least, comprehensively outclassed. The mood is more relaxed and the contribution of Magdalena Kožená in the finale a definite plus. She may not be a natural for childlike wonder by she sings with consummate technical control and intellectual understanding.

If the Rückert-Lieder seem a little cool at first, the astonishing subtlety and tact of the orchestral response inspires Kožená to a rapt account of “Ich bin der Welt”, perhaps the finest since Janet Baker and John Barbirolli famously collaborated in these songs (EMI, 2/68). The fact that the soloist is sometimes marginally ahead of musicians whose every phrase is shaped to jewel-like perfection only goes to show that these renditions are pretty much “as heard” in the hall.

Visually things are less happy. The filming is conventional in style but old Abbado hands could be distressed by his extreme frailty. Meanwhile Kožená’s tanned face and pink décolletage seem ill-matched and you may take against her wild-eyed gurning, something I hadn’t noticed before in live performances witnessed from the cheaper seats. You can always turn off the visuals although, usefully, subtitles are provided. Sonically, it is just a little dry, possibly a faithful reflection of the much-lauded sound in the venue.

Abbado’s ability to create a frisson at the outset of the Adagietto of the Fifth is trumped here by the instantaneous rapture he magics at the start of the Fourth’s slow movement. Sceptics should sample without delay. Here is profoundly affecting artistry which for once lives up to the hype.



Jeffrey Kauffman
Blu-ray.com, January 2011

Gustav Mahler’s life was one fraught with emotional tumult and questioning, and as such, his musical output is often a storm tossed sea of conflicting ideas, styles and mannerisms. Possibly no other composer is able to graft humor and horror as effortlessly as did Mahler, and probably at the very least no other late 19th-early 20th century composer moved so easily between achingly serene lyricism and brittle, astringent bitterness. Mahler was always appreciated—at least in certain circles—in his own lifetime, probably as much if not more for his conducting skills than for his writing, but his music was more than a little ahead of its time, in emotional content if not in its actual musical elements, which hewed fairly strongly to the already developed tropes of people like Richard Strauss and Wagner (despite what contemporary critics may have thought). Mahler was of course incredibly ingenious and quite innovative in how he structured things, but his tonal language rarely if ever varied from the expanded chromaticism still rooted in a tenuous tonality which had been the norm for several years by the time his compositions started being performed. But it’s that very expanded chromaticism, along with the unusual emotional element, which probably kept Mahler’s music from being as readily appreciated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as it became later under the aegis of Bruno Walter and especially Leonard Bernstein. Mahler’s symphonies are notably recondite works which challenge listeners to enter their often arcane quasi-programmatic worlds. Mahler can veer precipitously from bombastic Wagnerian hyperbole to the bizarrely mordant in a breath, and listeners must be prepared for sudden, and more often than not, unexpected changes in the musical weather. Mahler’s preoccupation with death colors many of his works, making the listening experience an up close and personal interaction with thoughts of mortality. And so what is one to make of the often relatively "easy listening" world of Mahler’s Fourth? This is a piece which is built around the foundation of one song, and as such has a more cohesive seeming structure than some of his other symphonic output (though truth be told Mahler was a supreme architect in even his most ostensibly "wandering" pieces). The Fourth also presents Mahler at his most instantly accessible and melodic, even some would argue simplistic. But it’s definitely Mahler hiding in the shadows throughout every bar of this piece, and as Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival cycle of Mahler Symphonies continues to see the Blu-ray light of day, it gives listeners a new opportunity to examine and appreciate what has, for perhaps the wrong reasons, become the most popular symphony in Mahler’s oeuvre.

Claudio Abbado is following in the rather large footsteps of the esteemed Arturo Toscanini, with Abbado’s own hand picked roster of musicians filling out the summer season Lucerne Festival Orchestra. In fact, even casual viewers will notice the unusual collegiality and especially the animation of these players. This is a group which doesn’t hustle off the stage as soon as a performance is over, but instead lingers, hugging each other, exchanging appreciative comments, and throwing petals at Abbado’s feet. That incredible rapport is one of the wonderful elements in all of the Lucerne Festival Blu-rays released thus far, and it makes this combo offering of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder song cycle and his Fourth Symphony such a joy to behold and listen to. As with Mahler’s better known Das Lied Von der Erde, the Rückert-Lieder are alternately performed with different voice classifications, and though they were premiered posthumously with a baritone, here butter-voiced mezzo Magdalena Kozená assumes the vocal duties, as she does with the finale of the symphony. This still relatively young Czech has been receiving more and more acclaim on international stages, and it’s not hard to see in either of her performances here. Not only is she vocally assured, she acts the songs (and the symphonic movement) with inerrant grace and often just a dash of Mahlerian humor.

Mahler was of course incredibly influenced throughout his compositional career with Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the compilation of "folk poems" which caught not just Mahler’s particular fancy, but that of several other composers, including Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. But it has long been Mahler’s settings of the texts which have become iconic, and both the Rückert-Lieder and the Fourth Symphony owe their genesis, at least in part, to the inspiration "The Youth’s Magic Horn" granted Mahler. Though the Rückert-Lieder (named after the author of their texts, poet Friedrich Rückert) are in fact independent entities, they’re often lumped together, even in publishing, with Mahler’s settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Here, separated from the pack as it were, they offer an glittering glimpse into Mahler’s ineffable melodic sense as well as his philosophically questioning proclivities.

His Fourth Symphony is, despite its gargantuan orchestration, one of his simpler, more basic efforts, but it is the simplicity of genius, one filled with mirror images of motives and sequences, sprinkled throughout its fourth movements. As odd as it may sound, and perhaps mostly due to Mahler’s evocative use of sleigh bells, his Fourth has always struck me as a sort of counterpart to Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije. In fact, large swaths of Mahler’s Fourth are almost Slavic in character, with huge, abundantly emotional melodies pouring over sturdy and stalwart open fifths in the brass and winds. For those new to experiencing Mahler, there’s certainly no better place to start than with the Fourth, a piece which is positively Haydn-esque one moment and then bitingly modern and trenchant the next.

Abbado is assured and in command in both of these performances, conducting without a score (or baton, for that matter). But as convincingly brilliant as he is, it’s the genuine "conversations" occurring in the orchestra which make these performances so incredibly splendid. Clarinetists bob up and down in their seats, cellists seem to virtually saw away at their instruments’ necks, and the graceful hands of the harpist pluck deliberately at accent notes. It’s almost like watching a piece of choreography at times, accompanied of course by some of the most glorious music ever written. Mahler may not have expressed much unfettered joy in his compositional life, but the Fourth and the Rückert-Lieder are both transcendently rapturous experiences, even if they, as so many of Mahler’s pieces do, stare death squarely in the face.

Video Quality

Despite being encoded with the older MPEG-2 regimen, this Blu-ray looks appealingly sharp and well defined. I personally would have loved a bit more footage of the gorgeous environs of Lucerne (a brief credits prelude provides the only chance to view the glories of the Swiss countryside), but once we enter the concert hall itself, detail is for the most part quite excellent, with everything from the flyaway hair of Kozená (and the sparse hair of Abbado) to the fine lines of close-ups on hands and fingers offering the viewer a lot to look at. This is one of the more competently directed concert Blu-rays in recent memory, with really superb coverage of sections and various soli, and the Blu-ray offers abundantly saturated colors and generally excellent fine detail.

Audio Quality

While both the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 mixes are manifestly excellent, this is one of the very rare cases where I actually recommend toggling between the two for the two different elements in this program. I personally found the added spaciousness of the 5.1 mix acted to the detriment of the Rückert-Lieder, tending to dissipate the beautiful focus of Kozená’s voice too broadly over the soundfield. The LPCM 2.0 track, while obviously narrower, keeps the mezzo’s fine, liquid tone beautifully centered, with just enough orchestral support. On the other hand, the Fourth sounds magnificent in the 5.1 surround mix, with really good balance between sections and a wonderfully full and rich hall ambience. Both of the tracks sport brilliant fidelity, with excellent dynamic range and flawless reproduction of all frequency ranges.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements are offered on the Blu-ray.

Overall Score and Recommendation

If you’ve never experienced the tumultuous world of Mahler, take my advice and start with the Fourth Symphony. Unusually melodic, easily accessible (in a good way), but supremely complex and full of Mahler’s mordant humor, this is a Symphony which sings with virtually every bar. Along with the lesser known Rückert-Lieder, this wonderful concert is a brilliant example of virtuosic orchestral playing, and Kozená is equally fine in the vocal department. Highly recommended.



Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, January 2011

Mahler’s third symphony is an outstanding though complicated work, perhaps not easily appreciated by those new to classical music. Possibly though, the many beautiful passages would be appealing enough to easily outweigh that potential negativity. It is the longest of Mahler’s symphonies taking almost two hours to perform. Adding to the complexity is the presence of six movements instead of the more common four. Originally there were seven and the one eliminated eventually became the basis of the much shorter fourth symphony, kind of building it backwards from the last (fourth) movement. Here the third symphony features soloist contralto Anna Larsson, a good solid choice, plus the female voices of a choir and in some passages a children’s choir is also apparent. The variety of styles and juxtaposition of life and nature is fascinating and ever changing as envisioned by Mahler here. Repeated listening would be required and easy on the ears with the excellent full range recorded audio quality doing its best with Blu-ray letting us look and listen to a great dimensional depth of sound scape. At this point I am returning after listening to the other reviewed recordings and some that will arrive within the next issue.



Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, December 2010

The Performance

The Lucerne Summer Festival has witnessed some great concerts since its opening in 1938 led by music legend Arturo Toscanini. This concert, from August 2009, features Gustav Mahler’s music: The Rückert-Lieder and Symphony No. 4. These two pieces, separated by nearly two decades, trace the composer’s evolution as a creative genius. The 5 Rückert songs are introspective glimpses into Mahler’s heart and mind. The contrasts between the luminous beauty of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world)” and the chilling premonitions of death in “Im Mitternacht (At midnight)” are perfectly exposed by the close collaboration of Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and Italian maestro Claudio Abbado. Abbado began his distinguished career well before most of the orchestra members were born. He elicits a chamber orchestra effect during the neoclassical first movement of the Fourth Symphony. The second movement, “Totendanz” (Dance of Death) contains a ghostly solo fiddler. The third and longest movement, titled “Ruhevoll” (Restful) is a hymn-like expression of ineffable beauty. The work concludes with a child’s view of heaven’s delights, the song “Das himmlische leben” (The heavenly life). Although usually sung by a soprano, Kožená brings out this song’s intended innocence to perfection.

Video Quality

The Lucerne Festival is housed in a modern but rather plainly outfitted hall with the orchestra on risers and plenty of obvious acoustic panels. The camera work is deft and moves from panoramas to well-timed highlights of the solo players. There is frequent cutting back to the maestro’s face with its near-beatific expression as if communicating to a higher power. The same rapture is evident when Ms. Kožená receives her close-up shots. The relative bright lighting helps with detail, natural skin tones and instruments’ surface colors.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio (96kHz/24-bit) is warm and up-front. Surround sound fanciers will note that the hall effects are subtle at best, possibly due to the sound treatment previously noted. Abbado’s tight control over the orchestra’s dynamics allows the sound engineers to capture the timbre of the solo instruments. Kožená is heard to her best advantage with this scaled down approach. This is particularly helpful in the delicate songs of the Ruckert cycle. The Fourth Symphony ends very quietly and the audience, dead quiet throughout, sits in rapt silence for nearly a minute before breaking into enthusiastic and well deserved applause.

Supplemental Materials

There are no supplemental interviews. Trailers for other performances in the Euroart catalog are included.

The Definitive Word

Overall

The Mahler 4th introduced me to this composer, 50 years ago. It remains one of his most accessible pieces for first-time listeners. This is the BD premiere of both works. There are several DVD performances, including an excellent account led by Abbado and the Mahler Youth Orchestra, coupled with Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Melisande. The musicianship here is absolutely first rate, aided by superb videography and audio engineering. Like the hundreds in the audience, I was completely absorbed by the maestro’s deft touch and Kožená’s radiant singing. I do not award overall scores of “5” often. This is, simply stated, a must-have orchestral BD.






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11:56:39 AM, 31 August 2015
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