Ever wonder what would happen if you hand-picked an orchestra from among all the best musicians from all over Europe under the charge of one of the greatest Italian conductors of the 20th /21st century? No need to guess: we have it in the recordings of Claudio Abbado conducting his Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
I compared Abbado’s Mahler Symphony No. 2 with several others, including two other outstanding Blu-rays, by Riccardo Chailly and Pierre Boulez, and the Bernstein DVD from a 1973 performance at Ely Cathedral. I found Abbado’s interpretation a little fast and slightly glib in the second movement; Chailly and Bernstein took it slower and found better ways (than speed) to hold interest. On the other hand, Abbado elicited some exquisite loveliness from this same second movement’s inner sections.
Concerning the audio, the Abbado recording seems, like the Chailly, to have unfettered dynamic range. Chailly’s, however, has more impact, due to the way the various instrumental and choral sections were miked and balanced, giving greater emphasis to bass and to the percussion, and perhaps also to the vocal soloists. Although I found those balances to be very much to my liking—to the point that I find this and Chailly’s Eighth, recorded during the same festival, to be one of a handful of the best recordings I have ever heard, some people, purists in particular, will sense too much intervention by the engineers: there is more attention to individuals, such as the vocal soloists, than one would ever hear from one seat in a concert hall; still, they are kept at bay sufficiently to allow the volume to be turned high so that when the climaxes come they are truly stupendous.
Here are the results of my 4-way comparison:
Best orchestra: The Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Best mezzo: Janet Baker in the Bernstein and Petra Lang in the Boulez.
Best sound: The Chailly is the most impressive without being overbearing; the Abbado, the most natural. The Bernstein is simply not in the running.
Best conducting: Nearly a four-way draw, but I would narrow it down to Bernstein & Abbado as slightly preferable.
Best video: While all 3 Blu-rays are equally clear, the lighting and locale of the Chailly provide an especially pleasing and interesting view. If you like the old-fashioned warmth of film, you may like the Bernstein in spite of its low resolution. The Abbado is set in the visually uninteresting Lucerne Culture and Convention Center.
It is all but impossible to choose a favorite among these; much depends upon how one weights the various categories. For knock-your-socks-off production values, I'd choose the Chailly; but for sheer poetry and natural sound I'd say that Abbado is the safe choice.
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