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My Classical Notes, June 2012

…Claudio Abbado and his amazing Lucerne Festival Orchestra performed yet another symphonic work by Gustav Mahler: The Symphony No. 4. Abbado combined this orchestral work…with Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder”. The soloist in both works is the Czech soprano Magdalena Kozena.

Magdalena Kožená does not only make the “heavenly joys” resound in the final movement of Mahler’s fourth symphony. Before that, she devotes herself to the astounding beauty and intimate simplicity of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. The results that she achieves in this music is truly magical!

Claudio Abbado is undeniably a supreme Mahler conductor… © 2012 My Classical Notes Read complete review

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Mahler performances have become a legend in their own lifetime. Rightly so, as the conductor and his hand-picked orchestra are probably the most accomplished musical partnership on the planet. The cycle is not yet complete and already Euroarts has released a box set of Symphonies 1–7 on Blu-ray. The latter has the benefit of high-definition visuals and sound, but the cheaper DVDs are of the highest quality too. The camerawork in this series is a model of its kind—discreet and unfussy—and the lack of ‘bonus’ tracks is a plus as far as I’m concerned.

The disc starts with the Rückert-Lieder, sung by the white-gowned mezzo Magdalena Kožená. Hers is a light voice, pure of line and capable of some lovely floated notes. In Liebst du um Schönheit she adopts a slightly hectoring style, complete with widened eyes, that’s a tad distracting. Predictably, though, the Lucerners sound splendid in this most luminous of scores; as for maestro Abbado, his gestures are as economical as ever. The burbling start to Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder is nicely done, but Kožená’s pale tones—some might call them colourless—are clearly an acquired taste. In Um Mitternacht, especially, one longs for the subtle shading of Baker or Ludwig; that said, Kožená sounds more sheerly beautiful than either.

And that’s my only quibble; there’s a heightened sensitivity in Mahler’s score, where even the smallest change of colour or dynamic is freighted with intent, and that surely requires an equally subtle and nuanced vocalist. That said, Kožená’s Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft has a limpid beauty that, like Rückert’s scent of love, is impossible to resist. As for Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen it’s the orchestra that catches one’s ear, this fragile music appearing to tremble on the very edge of extinction. Here it’s indescribably beautiful, a deep spell that’s only broken after a long, appreciative silence. What a relief, no oiks screeching ‘bravo’ on the last note.

Before we launch into the Fourth Symphony, I must confess to some trepidation. There’s no doubt Abbado’s Lucerne Mahler is as good as it’s ever likely to get, but there have been times when I’ve wondered whether this maestro’s own battle with mortality overloads the music. The Fifth and later symphonies can take that extra weight, but I’m not sure the earlier, so-called Wunderhorn ones, can do the same. The Fourth certainly benefits from a lightness of touch, its aerated textures especially suited to a virtuoso band such as this. Indeed, the ‘hear-through’ sound of the Rückert -Lieder bodes well for what follows.

And so it proves, the opening of the first movement as sun-flecked and easygoing as one could wish for. It’s all played pretty straight, without that self-indulgent swoop and swoon that so easily disrupts the Mahlerian line. There’s also an almost forensic quality to the sound that trumps most CDs of this work, so I can only wonder at the improvement high-res Blu-rays claim to offer. In PCM stereo at least the soundstage is both deep and broad, timps crisp and authoritative, massed strings bright without ever being steely.

Abbado isn’t inclined to dawdle, the end of this movement sounding as clear-eyed and emphatic as ever. The ‘wie an Fiedel’ of the Totentanz movement may not be as unsettling as some, but it’s still superbly done, plucked strings—like the video picture—pin-sharp throughout. Indeed, Abbado’s no-nonsense reading reminds me of Klaus Tennstedt’s BBC Legends Mahler First, which also benefits enormously from a taut, unsentimental approach. Shorn of excess, Mahler’s chamber-like scoring is laid bare in the most natural and convincing way, so much so that one seems to be hearing these familiar scores as if for the first time. Just sample that nodal point at 46:55, where the music broadens naturally, without recourse to unnecessary pauses or exaggerated phrasing.

But it’s the adagio that s most captivating, the Lucerners infusing this music with a penetrating warmth; it’s a remarkable sleight of hand, for rhythms are neither sluggish nor the mood dewy-eyed. It’s a seamless performance, the tiniest of details heard as never before; the music-making is little short of superhuman, but it certainly isn’t short of emotional intensity, the final peroration and postlude—if one can all it that—as magnificent as I’ve ever heard them. And just when I’ve run out of superlatives there’s the child-heaven finale, with Kožená in silvery voice. She’s always clear and crisp, which dovetails nicely with Abbado’s brightly-lit uplands; but, and it’s a very small but, I did find this movement a little lacking in charm.

I cannot end on a caveat; this is an impressive disc, a high water mark in the history of Mahler recordings in general and this symphony in particular. Refreshing, renewing, remarkable—a must-have for all Mahlerians.

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

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., January 2011

Vocal interpretation is also the main reason people will be interested in the new Lucerne Festival DVD featuring Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler. The real attraction here is not so much Abbado—although he does a generally fine job with the Symphony No. 4 and the accompaniments to the Rückert-Lieder—but Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Her handling of the songs is quite moving: hers is a voice of much richness and warmth, and she brings the sound of genuine passion to these works. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I Am Lost to the World”), in particular, is handled with sensitivity and understanding. The symphony, in contrast, is a bit of a letdown: Abbado conducts it with care, shaping the music well and letting the climaxes burst forth, especially the blazing opening of the gates of Heaven in the third movement. But in the finale, the rich texture of Kožená’s voice does not fit the music particularly well. This movement is cast as a child’s view of Heaven, brimming with naiveté and a sense of wonder (Leonard Bernstein actually tried having a boy soprano sing it). Kožená simply sounds too mature for the music: there is great beauty in her voice, but for that very reason, the magic of Mahler’s scene-setting is diminished beneath the vocal loveliness. This is by no means a bad performance, but it is one not quite in keeping with what the composer was looking for. As for the value of having this music on DVD rather than CD—that is, of course, an individual decision. There is something inherently interesting in seeing a live performance such as this one as the audience saw it—but of course home viewers do not really see it that way, since the chosen camera angles, closeups and other effects do not duplicate the concert-going experience and may even detract from enjoyment of the music. Of course, the option to close one’s eyes is always there—but it is there as well when listening to a CD or, for that matter, when attending a concert.

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.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, November 2010

Moving to the more recently recorded programs, they are a very impressive batch of releases. They include the latest in the Claudio Abbado performances of Mahler and his Symphonies. He is joined by Magdalena Kozena this time and also does Mahler’s Ruckert-Liederin this series that is one of the best we are likely to ever encounter from Abbado and on Mahler.

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