GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 1 – 10; Totenfeier; Das Lied von der Erde
Performers: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/ Conductors: Fabio Luisi, Mariss Jansons, Ivan Fischer, Daniele Gatti, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, Eliahu Inbal/ Soloists: Bernarda Fink, Ricarda Merbeth, Anna Larsson, Robert Dean Smith, Miah Persson, others, Netherlands Radio Choir, State Choir Latvija, Bavarian Radio Choir, Nat. Boy’s Choir, Nat. Children’s Choir, Boys of the Breda Sacrament Choir, Rijnmond Boys’ Choir
Studio: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra RCO Live TCO 12102 (11 discs) [1/8/13] (Distr. by Harmonia mundi)
Video: 16:9 1080i HD color
Audio: Choice of DTS-HD MA 5.0 or PCM stereo 96/24
No subtitles, libretto or booklet with translations
Length: 915 minutes
This is a quite amazing collection of all the Mahler symphonies, including Deryck Cooke’s revision of No. 10, of which the composer only completed the first movement Adagio, and conductor Inbal has done the recreation many times before. All ten plus the other two Mahler works were filmed in the famed Concertgebouw hall in Amsterdam in high definition during the 2009 thru 2011 seasons. The conductors include several internationally famous ones as well as some I was not as familiar with. The vocal soloists are all world class and the performances are superb, although I did not compare to any of the multichannel SACDs except for the San Francisco Symphony & MTT on a few of them.
For video comparison I did have Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on an EMI Classics DVD, and also Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic plus the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela on a DGG DVD. On the Fifth we have a pretty much unknown but Mahler-specializing conductor and on the now-decade-old EMI DVD there is Rattle plus the Berlin Philharmonic, so that competition is a bit heavy for the Concertgebouw. Turning to the Dudamel extravaganza, we have a really giant assembly that fully justifies the “Symphony of a Thousand” appellation. However, being a majority of very young both choral and symphony musicians in Venezuela, the Concertgebouw forces—which seem almost chamber-like compared to the huge numbers in Venezuela—may be a lot smaller but also sound more accurate and precise. After a huge aggregation such as Dudamel conducting the Eighth you might wish for a little larger choir in the Second and Eighth, but the members here are most professional. Also, the entire Concertgebouw site is beautifully filmed in HD on Blu-ray, while the other two are just standard DVDs.
One really gets to be familiar with the physical setup of the Concertgebouw during the ten symphonies, as well as the individual players. There is an interesting physical setup onstage, with two giant staircases coming down into the orchestra, and some of the audience seated along their sides and just in back of the orchestra. Some of the videos begin with closeups of the conductor walking down the staircase top to bottom, to the podium. Although they are all of good visual quality, Nos. 7 and 9 are somewhat looser in focus and details. Of course the Concertgebouw is acclaimed for its perfect acoustics, and the DTS lossless surround captures it in fine fashion. However, the unusual 96K/24-bit PCM stereo option is also excellent and I got even better surround results on some of the separate Blu-rays from switching to it and feeding the analog signal from my Oppo deck to Pro Logic IIz with height channels decoding. The enhancement of sonic quality at 96/24 over 48K or even most DTS-HD (let alone standard CD) is to me more power, density and detail, and also a feeling of more depth.
We would all pretty much agree that Mahler symphonies demand far too much sonically to be appropriate for standard 44.1/16 CD reproduction. There are good hi-res surround SACDs of the Mahler symphonies, but having the excellent visuals on the screen along with the hi-res surround, even when the conductor may not be on the top-ten list, is a wonderful opportunity. To quote Lorin Maazel: “…there is no orchestra in the world more suited to the Mahlerian sweep and breadth requisite to a performance that should launch listeners into orbit.” After viewing this set, you may very well feel somewhat short-changed whenever you just listen to just a recording of a Mahler symphony or even a standard DVD with surround in the future.
Nine different conductors are involved here, with Chief Concertgebouw Conductor Mariss Jansons the only one who gets three of them: Nos. 2, 3 & 8. Many consider the RCO the world’s finest orchestra, even above the Berlin Philharmonic. While the individual members of the Berlin Philharmonic are more virtuosic, the orchestral sound of the Concertgebouw as a whole is regarded as more balanced. The vocal soloists on those works requiring them are all of a high level. Anna Larsson’s alto is a standout on Das Lied and Bernarda Fink, mezzo, carries the Third into an involving experience. Then there are the eight vocalists on the Eighth Symphony. (Some of these works may be rather tough going without any subtitles or libretto; hopefully you can use one from another recording in your collection.) None of the performances in this set are bad, and many are truly winners. Some people have purchased their first Blu-ray deck just because of this release, feeling that previously there haven’t been that many must-have Blu-ray concert music releases (they’re wrong). The price is also reasonable. The only con I see in this set is the fact that the producers failed to include any note booklet, translations, libretto or captioning.