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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
Music is the Language of the Heart and Soul—A Portrait of Mariss Jansons, A film by Robert Neumüller

Ricarda Merbeth (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Netherlands Radio Choir, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor)
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (December 3, 2009) – 142’
C Major 709804 – Picture format: 1080i 16:9 – Sound format: PCM Stereo & DTS-HD MA 5.0 (concert only) – Region code: A, B, C – Blu-Ray Disc and booklet with essays in English, German and French

The era of high definition has been a boon for Mahler fans. The centenary of his death coincided with the explosion of Blu-ray as the high definition media of choice. Performances from Leipzig, Berlin and Lucerne have been released on Blu-ray disc to often wide acclaim, with Claudio Abbado’s near-complete cycle leading the way. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra appears to be getting in on the act as well. This release of Mahler’s Second Symphony, coupled with an hour-long documentary on conductor Mariss Jansons, appears to be a primer. The last page of the enclosed booklet advertises an 11-disc Blu-ray and DVD release of all 10 Symphonies, plus Das Lied von der Erde, which will be available May 2012 (but doesn’t yet appear on the RCO website). The verdict on the complete cycle, which features various prominent conductors, will have to wait. This first offering, while containing some downright gorgeous playing, is unfortunately uneven and not particularly exciting.

The pedigree of the RCO is not an issue here. They consistently play with a refined, plush sound. Their brass section is incomparable and perform Mahler’s thundering episode from the final movement with remarkable control and authority. Jansons begins the first movement at a moderate pace. In fact, none of his tempos are particularly extreme one way or the other throughout, and therein may lie the issue with the performance. There is very little that grabs the listener or gives this piece the raw vitality it so desperately deserves. The first movement “Sehr Mässig” is tenderly played but is missing the wide-eyed wonderment that can affect this section so beautifully. The fierce, ensuing “Schnell” (written as a triple-forte), does not have the desired bite or gravitating despair that makes the return to that motive so effective in building the structure of the lengthy movement. The cumulative effect is a performance that is puzzling. As technically proficient as all involved are, it never really sizzles.

The second movement is finely played, but lacking in plebeian lilt. It is charming, but perhaps too self-aware. The sarcastic and ironic third movement begins with enough ferocity, but Jansons, head often in score, refuses to provide much of a contrast between the woodwind theme and brass theme. Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink provides one of the highlights of the entire disc. She sings a youthfully bright and reassuring “Urlicht” with a supple and confident mezzo voice. The offstage brass at the beginning of the movement is perfectly balanced and finely executed. The buildup to the choral entrance in the fifth movement is highlighted by the exemplary playing of the aforementioned RCO Brass, particularly the onstage group. Their tone is majestic, transcendent and a fine fit for Mahler’s heavenly calls. The “Wieder sehr breit” of the low brass is almost worth the price of admission, yet the power and elegance of their tone is not enough to help the transition to “Wieder breit” take off and soar. The fantastic Netherlands Radio Choir sing with organ-like precision and tone. The power of their second basses was particularly impressive. Soprano Ricarda Merbeth’s sings with pathos but her contribution is somewhat marred by a wide vibrato. The finale lumbers to its conclusion without much shape or tension. The Royal Concertgebouw organ is one of the highlights here as it is beautifully captured and balanced. Still, this is a performance that for all its polish and fine playing, doesn’t really work or grab the listener.

The sound is very nicely done for the most part. Audio balances are virtually perfect with inner voice details remarkably clear. However the surround mix is very center channel heavy and is somewhat sparing in ambient hall details aside from applause in the rear channels. The video quality is quite beautiful. Colors are very vibrant on the verge of being over-saturated, but the detail and glow of the instruments is stunning.

The documentary movie Music is the Language of the Heart and Soul is informative and finely filmed. It follows Jansons through various rehearsals and interviews him as he travels to his childhood home and school. His story of growing up in Cold War Latvia is compelling and, at times, sad, but touching. The documentary is all in German with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. It is a nice supplement to the concert, although not particularly Mahler-heavy as far as relating to the rest of the disc. Fans of Maestro Janson’s work may want to seek out this disc for the documentary and concert, but Mahler devotees may be better off looking at the other fine recordings of the Mahler Second Symphony already available. Stay tuned, however. The forthcoming boxset featuring Iván Fischer, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink among others will undoubtedly be worth checking out.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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