Too Close to Greatness

REVIEW PUBLISHED: February 16, 2012
PROGRAM: Mahler Symphony No. 9
ARTISTS: Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra
RELEASED: January 25, 2011
COMPANY: Accentus

A typical angle from Accentus’s Blu-ray of the Lucerne Festival performing Mahler’s 9th in 2010


Reviewers across the Internet often rave about the last moments of this concert. How Claudio Abbado dictated that there be a time of silence to let the end of the Symphony play out naturally, and how the audience reacted so passionately afterwards. That is perhaps the disc's only virtue above other live accounts of Mahler's Ninth captured on film.

Mainstream classical review sites have universally lauded this disc, but it seems those who analyzed it didn't use their eyes as carefully as their ears. A typical example is Gramophone critic David Gutman's dense, meandering account on the interpretative virtues of this disc, but which fails to clearly answer the most essential question that a review of a video must ask---should we watch it?

The sound here compares favorably with other decent recordings of Mahler's ninth, but this is a video. Creating any professional video means filling more requirements than producing a high-fidelity audio recording. It requires even more thought and planning. Watching this particular video told me that the camera team led by Michael Beyer either does not know what to do with Blu-ray technology, or has no faith in it.  It's filmed the same way as someone would film a concert in the seventies, or eighties, or nineties. In grand, outpouring tuttis, the director uses hideous panoramic shots that give us generous views of the musician's scores and their backsides, but seldom shows how they actually perform. Two other unhelpful cameras that capture the whole stage are extremely distant and angled either too low or high. Oh, and the senseless close-ups of nearly every, single player.

Overall, the camera direction uses a routine, dreary style that switches angles from musician to musician. Sometimes it features one of the cellists, sometimes a horn player, sometimes a woodwind player, or just Maestro Abbado (see last paragraph).  This is a  true shame considering the all-star cast of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Once in a while you see Natalia Gutman (one of Rostropovich's finest pupils) or legendary Clarinetist Sabine Meyer,  among many others. Alas, the camera direction only gives glimpses in the otherwise perfect execution of this sophisticated Symphony. These kinds of angles at high resolution only show us how much make-up some musicians use, rather than the greatness of their collaborative art.

If Accentus had adopted a camera direction similar to the innovative team behind the 2009 NHK production in Amsterdam, recommending this disc would be a no-brainer. There is some terrific playing here, and it's recorded quite well so that one can hear many layers of sound. But it's bizarre to watch. Mahler's melodies and harmonies often involve different instrumentalists and multiple sections. Unlike DVDs, the high- resolution of Blu-Ray video has the power to show a large number of musicians clearly without making them look tiny or blurring their physical movements. So it's really weird when, for example, you see only one horn player but also hear other rich textures that involve the strings and woodwinds.

By segregating one or two musicians for each camera angle, the director also heightens (or hides) the lack of synergy in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, excellent as each player is. The distinguished musicians in this video meet only once a year for three weeks--- otherwise, due to their busy schedules, most of them are almost strangers to one another. Listen to any of Abbado's most fantastic recordings with full-time orchestras from Berlin or Vienna. One can sense that the players in these ensembles know one another very well. In my favorite Blu-ray, you can see the teamwork that occurs in a good orchestra, with each musician in the Concertgebouw preparing or encouraging each other during the concert.

To those in the audience, this was an exceptional event. But the conventional, outdated camera work makes this production another casualty/lost opportunity in the long history of poorly filmed great concerts. It's boggling that after nearly a century of directors experimenting with every single camera angle possible, this production team chose the most bland, irrelevant close-ups. Why did they do this when they were armed with such powerful equipment? Was the camera team so overwhelmed by the power of this ideal ensemble that they could only bear to film one person at a time? Why bother then to use such expensive audio recording equipment to capture virtually every sound? Why not record it in mono? Perhaps we could sympathize with the director though. Why should he bother to take a day or two before filming to read the score and plan camera angles to make something truly special?

Despite this disc’s abundant flaws, it might serve as a useful document for aspiring conductors. Those who want to see a conducting aesthetic that is energetic, graceful, and sincere would be interested in a neat feature on this disc: the "Conductor Cam."  By pushing one button, viewers have the choice to  watch only Claudio Abbado for the duration of the concert,  another fine example at how indolent this production team is. It's pleasing to see Maestro Abbado is as active as ever despite various setbacks over the past few years.  Deutsche Gramophone made a stellar recording of this same symphony with him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic live in 1987. It's clear from this Blu-ray video that Abbado's keen intellect and physical prowess remain intact. But no matter how great the conductor, the whole magic of a great symphonic performance includes seeing all the players involved, when necessary.