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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 16, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 50
Blu-ray enhances great Mahler
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Blu-ray enhances great Mahler

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Did you ever feel that Mahler, while obviously a brilliant orchestrator, was only a very good, second-rate composer? That's how I felt, even with my treasured old performances with Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil, until I encountered these videos from the Lucerne Festival under Claudio Abbado. These summer festival events, recorded over the past decade, are a perfect example of the magic that happens when all the elements come together to yield great performances perfectly captured by state-of-the-art techniques, all managed with musical taste. Especially on Blu-ray, the sound just couldn't be better, especially when played back in DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound mode on a good system.

Now available in a boxed set of four Blu-ray discs from EuroArts, Mahler's symphonies 1-7 come with two excellent extras: Mahler's 'Rückert-Lieder' (with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Ko~ená) and Prokofiev's 'Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major' (with Yuja Wang, piano). The 9th symphony is available separately, and the 8th is yet to come. The sound on regular DVDs is as good as anything short of Blu-ray can provide, but on good enough equipment, the DTS-HD Master Audio (Blu-ray) is fuller, with better definition and complete lack of dynamic or digital compression. Every medium available to the public since Edison has involved some sort of compromise of the original sounds, until modern Blu-rays. (Granted that nothing yet matches a live experience, if the hall is good enough and you're sitting in the right seats.) DTS-HD Master Audio is a dream come true for an audio snob like me, for the full dynamic range and ALL of the digital information are retained.

But the real glory of these discs is the mastery of Claudio Abbado. A sophisticated musical friend once said to me about Abbado, 'There's not an unmusical bone in his body.' Watching him conduct these complex, highly contrapuntal scores without the printed music in front of him is a wonder in itself. But it's the life he brings to the music, so full of articulate emotion and energy, that makes it all so special. His players, hand-picked from mostly chamber music groups, obviously love him and respond to his tiniest gesture or facial expression. They are all having great fun!

By some quirk of marketing, DVDs and even Blu-ray discs are often cheaper than their CD alternatives, and in this case you get so much more. The sound, of course, is better than regular CDs (almost all of which compress the data, losing some of the sonic information). CDs are also only stereo, rather than the 5.1 channels of these discs. But, more important, the visuals actually aid listening to the music. Often orchestral details I might miss in an audio-only listening are brought to my attention by the expert, and very musical, editing of the visuals. It doesn't hurt that the players are interesting to watch, many of them young and otherwise attractive. In addition, the discs convey a real sense of occasion: the love showered on Abbado and his players by the audience is genuinely thrilling. (Conductor Simon Rattle is often shown in the audience.)

Obviously, there is not room to detail the individual performances of each work. I will mention that Abbado has excellent taste in singers. Both Ko~ená (in the fourth symphony and the Rückert-Lieder) and Anna Larsson (symphonies 2 and 3) could not be surpassed, with rich, expressive voices and consummate artistry.

There are no extra features, but the set of four discs comes with a nice booklet of interesting essays on each work. (Yes, all this music fits on four Blu-ray discs!) Both video and sound quality are top-notch throughout the concerts recorded at the Lucerne Festival, spanning eight years.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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