Mahler: Symphonies 1 & 3 - Abbado
Esoteric ESSG-90252/3 (2 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Mahler: Symphonies 1 & 3
Anna Larsson, contralto
City of Birmingham Youth Chorus
London Symphony Chorus
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Review by John Broggio - April 28, 2022
A very good first and an outstanding third that have received some (much needed in the case of no. 3) care and attention sonically.
For reasons of timing, the third symphony is presented before the first symphony with the change in discs occurring before the finale of the third symphony instead of after the first movement in the original CD release. This may matter to some listeners musically because the first movement is conceived as "part 1" and the remaining five movements as "part 2", so Mahler's plan has been sacrificed to squeezing on the first symphony; as the whole series of Esoteric releases is unashamedly "premium plus", a sop to value-for-money of this nature is probably not needed.
The first symphony was taped in December 1989 which was in Abbado's first year as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker and marks the beginning of an intensive set of performances of Mahler's output in Berlin (and on tour) that culminated in the recording of the fourth symphony in 2005 (CD only). Arguably though, the focus and importance of Abbado's Mahler interpretation had by then shifted to Lucerne; instead, the apex of the Berliner's collaboration with Abbado in Mahler's music was arguably their performances of the third and ninth symphonies in the late 1990s. The ninth symphony is only available in CD-quality formats and is, in terms of refinement, emotional eloquence and sheer sonic quality superseded by Mahler: Symphony No. 9 - Abbado. Comparisons between these accounts and the equivalent for the third symphony are similar; the pacing and balances are frequently very similar but there is a refinement in Lucerne to the playing that is as from studio accounts (such as Fischer's BFO treat us to) despite being concert performances. The accounts with the Berliners more openly celebrate the kaleidoscopic timbres of each instrumental combination rather than trying to blur the edges a little as the Lucerne orchestra does.
One area where there is a definite edge in favour of Abbado's Lucerne performances is the quality of the recorded sound; neither the accounts of first or third symphony was recorded in greater detail than stereo CD-quality sound unlike most recent cycles that can be found here. Both accounts here (like Lucerne) are concert performances, the first from 3 performances possibly with a patching session in the Philharmonie and the third a single concert performance in London's Royal Festival Hall. Both have applause at the conclusion, the first has about 30 seconds whereas over 3 minutes(!) of the applause that greeted the performance of the third symphony is retained.
The first symphony has many wonderful performances here, from Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - de Vriend in an earlier form that we normally hear on disc or in concert to (for example) Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Fischer (Ivan). The timings of the performances of both Abbado and Fischer are very similar, there is considerable nuance in expression. Fischer is content to present the music without apparent knowledge of future compositions by Mahler; Abbado hints at looking ahead to the ninth symphony and heightens the expressive contrasts although not to the same extent as in Lucerne. The playing is (subject to what the limits of the source sound permits us to hear) very good indeed, with many deft touches and as one might expect from concert performances a real sense of electricity. There are details that Fischer and the recording he enjoys permits us to hear that simply aren't audible because (unsurprisingly) the recording doesn't have the same resolution or transparency and some may also enjoy Fischer's less hyper-intense approach to the symphony. For all that, it is lovely to hear the Berliner's clearly enjoying themselves after what had been a rather turbulent decade on and off the podium. Were this performance recorded in hi-res (MCH) sound, it would vie with Fischer for reference status (with honorable mentions to Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Nott and Mahler: Symphony No. 1 - Vänskä).
The performance of the third is on another level again and is quite remarkable considering that it is an unpatched document of a single concert. As I was lucky enough to be in the audience that evening, I know it's actually only part of a single concert: before the interval they performed Rihm's In doppelter Tiefe, itself almost 30 minutes in duration. To say that this tour to celebrate 50-years of (West) German democracy was somewhat unforgiving would be something of an understatement but London was fortunately one of the earlier dates. That night seared itself into my consciousness and is one of the greatest concerts I have been, and will be, lucky enough to attend.
Perhaps because a recording was not planned, there was less emphasis on finding tonal unanimity than one normally hears from this source which gives the interpretation an extra degree of excitement (not that there were any significant "rough edges" - the refinement here is still greater than many manage in the studio). The tutti response to the opening horn calls is almost violent in its vehemence; to further amplify the contrasts, the Berliners "collapse" the sound stage before the woodwind/trumpet flourishes bring the symphony "back into the light". There is a real feeling of passion, almost nervous aggression, in the opening musical salvos. The sheer range in dynamic between these climaxes and the "Alpine" figuration that precedes the great trombone solo is a joy to behold and is (now) adequately captured on disc. As in the first symphony, when textures are dense, the limitations of the recording unfortunately do impose themselves, despite the best efforts of the original BBC and subsequent engineering teams but this is a far cry from the original issue on CD.
The myriad of colours that Mahler liberally dispenses across the second and third movements are again portrayed vividly by the Berliners and arguably generates a more convincing narrative than their colleagues in Lucerne manage in 2007 with Abbado heightening the contrast between tempos. Throughout one senses the risks that are being taken with ensemble and expression and, miraculously, always come off. A clear drawback of any purely stereo recording is that off-stage instruments, like the post horn in the fourth movement, are somewhat "flatly" presented - despite this the sense of stillness and distance is palpable in the fourth movement. As in Lucerne, the contralto is Anna Larsson and is in wonderfully rich voice. Here Abbado falls between the relative static Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - Nott and the more flowing Mahler: Symphony No. 3 - Fischer (Ivan) and so manages to pull off the trick of appearing to be both reflective and generating forward momentum. The City of Birmingham Youth Chorus and women of the London Symphony Chorus are all in fine voice.
Up until this point, Abbado's choice of tempo here and in Lucerne are remarkably consistent. In the finale though, Abbado adopts a much more flowing tempo than in Lucerne (this performance is broadly similar to Fischer's) which allows the music to "glow" in an unforced manner. In the closing pages, the brass arguably husband their resources but the audible effect is minimal. Perhaps what is most captivating to the ear is the unending glorious string tone that sounds as though it could go on forever. Sensitively shaped, this provides a magical carpet of sound for their woodwind and brass colleagues. The eventual ovation is richly deserved.
So, what is the sound like? In the case of the first symphony, the DG team did as good a job as possible back in 1989 to capture and reflect as many nuances whilst retaining a coherent sonic image. The third symphony though was "transformed" after the DG team received the recording from the BBC and not in a particularly positive way. For some reason, they decided to reduce the inherent brightness of the sound in RFH. This made the upper registers of all instruments sound a little as though wrapped in plastic; at the same time, the lower registers lost focus. Fortunately the Esoteric team have been able to remove this (presumably they went back to the original BBC recording) with entirely positive results. For both symphonies, the Esoteric team have sensitively widened the dynamic range to better reflect what was heard in the concert hall and beyond what is capable from a CD-quality source. Despite Esoteric's best efforts, they naturally can't magic a DSD/DXD hi-resolution recording from this source material and there are nuances and details that can't be heard because of it. This set can't lay a sonic glove on a modern cycle, whether that's Abbado in Lucerne, Fischer in Budapest or Nott in Bamberg. Final point of sonic irritation; the gap between the fading out of the applause for the third symphony and the opening of the first is not nearly long enough.
Crucial question: is it worth it? Musically, unquestionably "yes". Sonically, unquestionably "no" (unless wanting to upgrade on the original release of the third). Those who admire Abbado's work in Mahler need have no hesitation; despite my undeniable emotional investment in the performance of the third, for those coming new to this repertoire, there are better recorded and just as finely performed alternatives as indicated above.
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