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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #5

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon Virtuoso 4783620
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Like most things in the late Claudio Abbado's career, his Mahler attracted a firm mix of admiration and disappointment. Both live and on disc, a widely divergent set of opinions was formed. Not helping matters was his habit of re-recording the core symphonies over and over with variable ensembles. I liked his Mahler Symphony #2 from Chicago, but found his Symphony #4 from Vienna to be pretty awful. This early Symphony #5, also in Chicago, validates – at least in this instance – my claim that early Abbado is better than late. This performance is outstanding.

The Chicago brass is legendary, but in the wrong hands even they can prove a liability. On this occasion, Abbado certainly knew what he was doing. A 1993 New York Times review of the Berlin Philharmonic in this same work spoke of instrumental miscues and failed artistic vision. Here in the safety of the studio, the conductor cultivates a true Mahler sound, while carefully maintaining the musical structure. The Chicago Symphony sounds magnificent overall, with the aforementioned brass in excellent form. The climaxes are thankfully not underpowered, and Abbado avoids any of my previous criticisms.

Chief among those was a near total inability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his ensemble at hand. It made his Symphony #4 an almost total disaster, but Abbado always had a good relationship with American orchestras, and he understands that he has a great Mahler vehicle to work with. The best Chicago recordings aren't just a brass-fest – Sir Georg, I'm looking at you – but also use the strings and winds to excellent effect. Abbado sounds engaged and alive to the many shifting moods and colors of this very difficult symphony, and he manages to create genuine atmosphere with the help of his orchestra. The very slow Adagietto is an absolute non-issue for me; if a conductor can get these results and sustain the musical structure, I don't really care how slow you go. With all the obscene things that have been done to Mahler over the years, this is nothing. Besides, the playing is divine. The concluding Rondo is terrific; that brass is amazing, but so is everyone else. Supremely well-played, and conducted with equal skill, this is a wonderful Mahler 5, especially at the Virtuoso price!

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman