MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C minor "Resurrection." DEBUSSY: La Mer.
Eteri Gvazava, soprano; Anna Larsson, contralto; Orfeón Donostiarra; Lucerne Festival Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0003397 (2 CDs) (F) TT: 45:01 & 60:29

The Lucerne Festival Orchestra on these two DG discs is not the ensemble that played for August festivals on the Swiss lakeside from 1938 through 1993, whose corps-group was the Suisse Romande of Geneva, supplemented by free-lance (or off-season) players from various European orchestras. This one, in 2003, had as its nucleus the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, alumni of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra founded by Claudio Abbado in 1986 (godfather as well of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, in addition to his duties at La Scala, Milan, and later on as Karajan’s successor with the Berlin Philharmonic for 12 years, through the 2000-2001 season). A stellar array of players joined Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 2003 for the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on these discs in live performances: the concertmaster, first trumpet and principal flutist, Emmanuel Pahud, of the Berlin Philharmonic; clarinetist Sabine Meyer (a BPO alumna) and her woodwind ensemble, three members of the superlative Hagen-family String Quartet, cellist Natalia Gutman, still more Berliners – players whose names are printed in the booklet along with texts for the Mahler Second Symphony, more likely familiar to European listeners than stateside buyers.

The layout on these discs is both intelligent and space-conscious, although the lead-off La Mer of Debussy – just nine years newer than the Mahler of 1896 – sounds incontestably more “modern.” Abbado’s timing is 24:04, a shade slower than Guido Cantelli’s Testament version with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the finale, roughly the same there as Fritz Reiner’s with the Chicago Symphony on RCA/BMG, and Victor de Sabata’s with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra also on Testament (the major difference between them is Reiner’s elongated opening movement, by more than a minute-and-half). Following applause and a pause, the “Totenfeier” first movement of Mahler plays alone as Mahler instructed at a very brisk 20:43, which gives it a coherence – created by Abbado’s uncanny continuity of tension in the silences between sections of an exceedingly sectional movement. The composer wanted several minutes of audience digestion before the symphony’s other four movements (the last three conjoined by the instruction “attacca” after 3 and 4). But let me finish La Mer before delving into details of this Mahler.

There were two weeks of sectional rehearsals in Lucerne before the orchestra assembled in toto, during which associations were renewed or new ones forged, and a unifying tonal blend was achieved, more often not with Abbado listening in despite the fragility of his health (he lost his entire stomach to cancer in the recent transition between centuries). Beckmessers with noses in the score (but not ears automatically attuned) have contested details in Abbado’s reading, but he is a master conductor of Debussy – how interesting, to put it mildly, that the best Debussy on discs has been willed to us by Italian rather than French conductors (and I am as aware as any Francophile of performances by Monteux, Paray and Munch). But Toscanini led off – although I don’t have any of his La Mer recordings, commercial or live, in my collection – followed chronologically by De Sabata, Cantelli and Abbado. The only major exceptions to what seems almost a rule were Reiner (not least for the 1960 Chicago Symphony’s superlative playing in a Richard Mohr/Lewis Layton recording) and Karajan with the Berlin Phil – their 1964 version, however, not a remake also on DG.

The playing on DG’s Lucerne set has breathtaking moments when the winds have a simultaneity of tonal purpose that makes one skip back just to savor their oneness as well as the beauty of sound. Abbado’s is characteristically a performance that builds, and when it “flies” (his own verb) in the coda of La Mer one wishes there were SACD to add further sonic impact and clarity.

The Lucerne Cultural and Congress Center which opened in 1998 lacks optimal clarity with a capacity audience, and a degree of immediacy in Mahler’s massive outbursts during the “Aufersteh’n” finale of No. 2. The sound is powerful but sometimes coagulated, yet massively moving at the same time. This is Abbado’s third Mahler Second (his first in Chicago in the ‘70s lacked personality, and his next a decade later in Vienna suffered from an emotionally withdrawn quality). In terms of conception, cohesion and forward impulse this is his finest hour (actually 81:14). He doesn’t dawdle over the first movement, or make it so melodramatic that what follows sounds anticlimactic until the finale. The Andante is gemütlich without a cloying overlay of sentimentality, and the Scherzo progressively powerful and abrasive until the balm of “Urlicht” with Anna Larsson his soloist, as she was in the Third Symphony with the BPO, recorded in London by DG.

Soprano Eteri Gvazava – not a word of identification about her in the program book – is less steady on her entry in the finale but tames a vibrato in time for duets with Larsson. The Orfeón Donostiarra comes from Barcelona as I remember, with trumpet-voiced tenors, especially in the section “Hör auf zu beben! Bereite dich zu leben!” which is heart-stopping. There is never a question whether Abbado is in control, or in the throes of recreative inspiration – his nearness to death has become life-affirming in ways not always so forthright earlier in his career. Without hardening of the spirit or arteries, he has become authoritative in a way I didn’t always expect at certain junctures in past times. He is maestrissimo today among Italians of his generation, although British-born Antonio Pappano may become his successor in the future. But meanwhile, evviva Abbado and this listener’s thanks to DG/Universal for preserving a historic treasure.

R.D. (December 2004)