At last week's performance of Mahler's third symphony by the National Symphony Orchestra, a few marvelous recordings hung uncomfortably in my ears. Not least among them was Claudio Abbado's latest, with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the Proms two years ago, heard by Internet broadcast. This DVD also crossed my desk recently, a live performance with the same forces, in the Lucerne Festival Hall on August 19, 2007. The comparison to the NSO is perhaps not fair to make, but it is important to do so, for objectivity's sake. That is, not really to hold the feet of the lesser orchestra to the fire, but to ensure that one's ears can tell the difference between superlative and merely good.
Mahler, Symphony No. 3, A. Larsson, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, C. Abbado
(released September 30, 2008)
Medici Arts EDV 1333 2056338
Abbado has lived with Mahler's third for a long time, and he works so well with the Lucerne musicians, a combination of younger players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and decorated veterans. It is hard to complain when you have principals like Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Natalia Gutman (cello), and members of the Hagen and Alban Berg Quartetts in your string section. The first movement's march was so solid, although there were a couple minor incidents of ununified ensemble in the scherzo. The vocal contributions are just as strong, with probably the best Mahler earth mother of our time, Anna Larsson, as the soloist. The women of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and the children of the Tölzer Knabenchor were cheery, brash, and full of sound. The only minor drawback is the sound quality, which does well at the high end of the dynamic span, but Abbado's attention to the absolutely hushed, almost silent moments turns up here as mostly an absence.
Abbado and his players are punctilious about Mahler's indications, too, and as anyone knows who looks at the average Mahler score, the composer left no doubt as to his intentions. Many pages are littered with extensive markings and even footnoted remarks to the conductor. Under Abbado, the horn bells go up in the air where Mahler wrote it, and there are cloth sound dampers, as indicated, over the bass drum and the bells of the trumpets and trombones (in the last movement). It is a minor point, which I left out of my review of the NSO Mahler 3, but the Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith remarked on the "turning inward" or "softening in the very last seconds" that Iván Fischer conducted on the last movement's final chord. It was a pretty effect, and it may even have been "marvelous" as Tim Smith put it, but Mahler specifically marked that massive final chord with the words "ohne Diminuendo." Abbado's final chord has no turning inward, only an eternity-minded expansiveness, filling time and space. As preserved on this DVD, the audience sat in stunned silence long after its last reverberations had ended.