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DVD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #6 in A minor

Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
EuroArts DVD 2055648 89min Dolby Digital DTS LPCM Stereo Anamorphic Widescreen
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The "Lucerne Festival Orchestra" is an ad hoc ensemble made up of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, members of the Ensemble Sabine Meyer, leading players from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and other "star" musicians. Kolja Blacher (violin), Wolfram Christ (viola), Natalia Gutman (cello), Alois Posch (double bass), and Milan Tukovic (bassoon) are among the Orchestra's members. In other words, just because you've never heard of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, don't worry that this is a second-tier group. It's anything but! Claudio Abbado re-founded it in 2003, and the result, in addition to concerts, has been a series of fine DVDs, of which this is the latest. (Mahler's Second, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies already are available from this team.) This performance was recorded on August 10, 2006.

The Sixth Symphony sometimes is called Mahler's "Tragic," and given Abbado's brush with death (a diagnosis of stomach cancer in 2000), one might expect him to bring out all the Angst in this work. Surprise! Instead, this is a reading in which there is as much brightness as there is fatalism, and while the Sixth's negative affect is not ignored, Abbado brings out the music's life-affirming qualities as well. At many times during this performance, we see Abbado smiling. Of course he must be pleased by the playing of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, but I think he also must have a new appreciation for Mahler's light, in addition to his shadow. One leaves this performance powerfully moved, but not terminally depressed! Also, Abbado's grasp of the work's overall shape is so strong that every moment pulls the listener forward, and this 85-minute symphony feels a lot shorter than it really is.

Abbado places the Scherzo third in this performance, and omits the third of the hammer blows in the Finale. The hammer blows, by the way, are felt as much as they are heard here, and it is fun actually to see the percussionist wielding what looks like a sledge hammer and bringing it down on a large wooden box.

Although the hall sound feels very natural, some of the orchestral balances are a tad artificial. Solo instruments are spotlit, and there isn't always the blending of timbres that one would like to hear. I feel that this is not Abbado's doing, but that of the engineers. Overall, the sound is very good but not spectacular. The camera-work and editing are wonderful, though. They follow the logic of Mahler's music, and create a feeling of immediacy.

Orchestral concerts and recitals on DVD make less sense to me than stage works, but here's a concert DVD that really works. I will come back to this one again and again.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle