Fine performances in a bargain double CD
Ralph Moore | Bishop's Stortford, UK | 12/27/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Abravanel's Mahler cycle was one of several which were part of the Mahler revival in the 60's and 70's and the recordings put both the Utah Symphony Orchestra and the acoustic of its famous hall on the musical map. It would be idle to pretend that Abravanel's orchestra had the same sheen and finesse as the Vienna Philharmonic but they make a splendid sound and seem inspired by their conductors's belief in them. Yes; the strings could be richer, less wiry, and the woodwind more refulgent but they do everything Abravanel asks of them without error and this recording benefits from the same sense of "rightness" which I find in Kubelik's live 1979 recording on Audita. There is no sense of histrionic over-indulgence; rather a lightness of touch and a forward propulsiveness and momentum which do not preclude grandeur. Abravanel conveys a sure sense of the architecture of this music; despite his feel for the charm in this, the most playful of Mahler's symphonies, there is always a hint that something mysterious, primeval and atavistic lies deep beyond the sunlit glades of the forest. (I had this same positive response to the poised simplicity of Pavel Urbanek's super-bargain recording on Laserlight/Delta with the Prague Festival Orchestra; as much as I love the later Bernstein version with the Concertgebouw, starrier conductors directing glossier bands can come across as a bit heavy-handed, by comparison.)
The second disc provides a rewarding account of "Des Knaben Wunderhorn", in excellent sound for 1963, recorded in the Grosse Saal, Vienna. The soloists are the superb Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester and a singer otherwise unknown to me, bass-baritone Heinz Rehfuss, who, without being a major singer, has a light, attractive, slightly husky vocal quality with a flickering vibrato and a wry expressiveness entirely appropriate to these ironic, vaguely disturbing songs. The Orchestra of the Vienna Festival (presumably local Viennese regulars in festival drag) are clearly expert instrumentalists, wholly attuned to the waltzes and marches which prevail.
This is an economical and satisfying way to become acquainted with two earlier Mahlerian masterpieces, the only pity being that a libretto is not provided -texts being essential to appreciation of the German folk poems Mahler set."