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Reviews

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”
22 Sep 2005

MAHLER: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”

Among recent recordings of music by Gustav Mahler, the 2004 release of the composer’s Second Symphony conducted by Claudio Abbado stands out as an intense and highly charged performance.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”

Claudio Abbado, conductor, Eteri Gvazava, soprano, Anna Larsson, contralto, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Orfeón Donostiarra (Chorus Master: José Antonio Sainz Alfaro), Orchestra.

Euroarts 2053268 [DVD]

 

That CD (Deutsche Grammophon CD B 0003397-02, which includes Debussy’s La mer) was recorded between 14 and 19-20 August 2003 at the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland, and this DVD is a video of the concert given on 21 August 2003. Since the DVD was recorded as a single take, it was subject to less manipulation of the sound in the studio than the multiple sessions involved with the CD. Most of all, the DVD also conveys visually the interactions between the conductor, orchestra, soloists, and chorus.

Mahler’s Second Symphony is a particularly visual work, and seeing it performed contributes to an understanding of the musical sounds involved. Given the large forces used for it, the visual space has a bearing on the sonic landscape, and this is an important aspect of Mahler’s music, and it is important to see how the music takes shape as it is performed. Some sounds are idiomatic to the work, like the “Rute” (bundle of sticks) used in the Scherzo (the third movement), the various points where bells of instruments must be lifted in the air, and other places where the techniques that Mahler wrote into his score help to create the sound world of the Second Symphony.

At the same time, Abbado is a dynamic conductor, and as much as his recordings are effective, it is useful to see him in action. The camera angles in this DVD offer various glimpses of the conductor at work with his ensemble, including shots from the perspective of the orchestra and also from above the podium, as well as conventional views from the audience. Without focusing overly much on Abbado, this DVD shows him engaging the orchestra in the performance, as he refines the shape of the work from this well-rehearsed and highly perceptive orchestra.

The camera moves from conductor to orchestra somewhat frequently in the first movement, and that underscores the way Mahler used the various motives that develop into the piece that was once performed as the tone poem “Todtenfeier.” Yet the images change just as rapidly in the second movement, the slow movement of the Symphony, and at that point it is somewhat distracting. To have the camera shift every few seconds disrupts the longer musical lines that are integral to the slow movement. By allowing the images to shift so rapidly, with the camera moving from one solo instrument to another, the DVD gives the impression of a kind of highlighted score, with the graphics geared toward a predetermined effect.

In terms of visuals, this movement in particular would work better if the images were fitted better to the music, with longer pans, including images of sections, instead of the predisposition for close-ups. At the same time, some shots in this movement are not entirely appropriate. When the trumpet entrance intersects the transition (before rehearsal no. 7, for example), the sight of the very red-faced trumpet player does not match the effortless-sounding passage. These are small points compared to the overall effect of the DVD, which is to capture the excellent performance and to convey something of its spirit. Yet when they do occur, the kind of longer shots and transitions that occur around rehearsal number 3 of the final movement are effective and suit the music well.

Moreover, the impressive chorus is a prominent visual image in the Finale, and while the singers are seated throughout much of that movement, their stolid faces make the sounds all the more effective. At some point the chorus stands, and it is to the credit of the producer that their rising is not captured, since such physical movement is often a cliché in performances of this work. Yet when the standing chorus intones the fortissimo sections, their attention is as impressive as that of the orchestra, with all the performers incredibly focused on making music with gazes fixed on the conductor.

Likewise, it is useful to see Abbado’s expressive touch with the orchestra as he shapes the sounds. His visual cues suggest how he makes this score work so well. The nodding approval he gives to a player executing a solo part well shows his personable manner with the ensemble in medias res, and reflects his involvement with the music. This is especially evident near the ending of the Finale, where a close-up of the musician playing the tubular bells frames Abbado, and creates a particularly striking image. The camera then takes the viewer to Abbado, whose image in the closing moments contributes an appropriate tone to the music. Abbado’s gracious gesture to the orchestra, with his hands folded (as in a namaskara), as the applause swells says more than spoken words from a conductor about being indebted to his performers. To see the conductor’s deference to the other musicians is impressive, as is the enthusiastic response of the audience.

The soloists are quite fine, with Anna Larson’s rich contralto sound contributing a particularly memorable quality to the vocal line of the fourth movement, Mahler’s setting of the Wunderhorn poem “Urlicht.” Larson works well with the soprano Eteri Gvazava in the Finale, where the solo lines carry the text that is critical to the choral passages with which the Symphony concludes. Gvazava has an engaging sound, and both women perform their roles with apparent ease and from a position within the ensemble, where their voices can blend with the accompanying instruments.

All in all, the DVD is well produced, with crisp images and fine sound. While the sound is not entirely as resonant as that found on the Deutsche Grammophon CD, the recording levels used with the DVD serve the music well enough, with the softer passages clearly present, and the sometimes shattering crescendos rendered well. The DVD offers subtitles in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English, so that viewers can follow the sung portions of the work. Nevertheless, this is not a substitute for including the sung text and translations in the booklet that accompanies such an otherwise fine DVD as this one. In addition to including those texts, a further refinement that would assist a large-scale work like this is the banding of various sections of the movements as found on the audio CD. Other refinements of a DVD like this would be to include tracking to coordinate the performance to measures in the score; related to this would be the inclusion of a scanned image of the score on a DVD, for those who might want to view it while hearing the music or simply have easy access to the notation. Suggestions like these should by no means infer problems with this specific DVD. It is an outstanding performance, and we are fortunate to have it preserved in this format.

Beyond the performance of the Symphony itself, the credits on the DVD are interestingly placed over the scene of the orchestra taking its leave from the stage. The camera continued to roll as orchestra members took their leave from each other and captured apparently old friends and acquaintances saying good-bye to each other or exchanging a few words to their colleagues. More than the concert itself, these scenes contribute a sense of the camaraderie that was implicit the performance. These fleeting moments, which are ultimately separate from the recorded work, help to set this particular DVD apart, too, from other filmed concerts.

The performance captured on this DVD also attests to Abbado’s dedication to Mahler’s music and his inspired leadership at the podium. While others may have their own preferred recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony, this DVD, like the CD recorded around the same time, has much to recommend. Abbado and all the performers meet the challenge of the score, which is essentially a symphonic cantata that is made up of chamber-music-like sections. An effective performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony should not rely solely on the broad, theatrical strokes that are indeed part of the Finale of the work, but also the subtle moments in the score that must be executed well, to create the effective performance that is found on this DVD.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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