MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 – Paavo Jarvi conducts, Blu-ray (2015) 

Performers: Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Paavo Jarvi/ Waltraud Mejer, mezzo
Studio: Unitel Classica Blu-ray (2/24/15) [Distr. by Naxos]
Audio: Stereo PCM, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Video: 1080i for 16 x 9 (see my comments about video quality below)
Extras: Intros to each symphony by Paavo Jarvi
Length: 195 minutes
Rating: Audio ***1/2     Video **

This is a recent release of the Mahler 3rd and 4th Symphonies, previously available on DVD. There are many Mahler symphonies on Blu-ray, and Jarvi’s interpretation is excellent, but this disc has some problems, which I will discuss later in this review.

The Mahler 3rd Symphony was written between 1893-1896. It is the composer’s longest work, and I think, it is the longest symphony in the standard classical canon, requiring two CDs. It runs about 100 minutes on this disc. As in Mahler’s other three early symphonies, he provides a program to reflect what the symphony is about. Mahler referred to this work as a “A summer’s midday dream.” Each of the six movements has a subtitle. The 3rd Symphony is always an event, because like the 8th Symphony, it takes a large orchestra and chorus. And it’s expensive to perform.

The Symphony No. 4 was written 1899-1900. One of Mahler’s shorter symphonies, the Frankfurt orchestra does it in about an hour. The performances of both symphonies is quite good. Playing is precise, and if not for some audio and video defects I would rank this as one of the best Mahler parings.

On to the problems: This recording, available in PCM stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 is a bit perplexing. The disc defaults to stereo audio, and I would think the multi-channel mix would be of most interest to Blu-ray buyers. Many will pop the disc in, and never realize there is higher quality audio available. The recording venue, the Kloster Eberbach, really reinforces the low end, and gives the surrounds some pleasant ambiance. On the other hand, the recording geometry seems wrong. The orchestra is large and quite wide left to right, and the recording reflects that. The chorus, on the other hand, is squeezed into the front of the church in a narrow alcove, but the singers sound as widely separated as the orchestra, leaving a disparity between what you see and what you hear. I would have expected to chorus to be mostly in the center, either with a front center surround, or with a phantom center created by the two front channels.

Now I must talk about the video. While listed as 1080i, the video looks like an upscaled DVD. Details on faces and textures of the string instruments are blurred. There is some video ringing, especially in contrasty areas between light and dark areas. The outside light through the church windows is blooming, a sure sign of reduced dynamic visual range.

To call this a Blu-ray is really misleading, because the video just doesn’t match the video quality of other Blu-ray symphonies I have in my collection.

So this disc is a mixed bag. A fine performance. Decent audio, but with some distorted geometry. If I was just listening, rather than watching and listening, I would not have noticed the issue. Ultimately, it is the video that sinks this disc. It just does’t look like HD, and the provenance of the video is never disclosed, In fact, the label says it is ‘mastered from an HD source.” No way. I think the Abbado 3rd is far superior in look, and roughly equal in sound. [The complete Mahler symphonies by the Concertgebouw on Blu-ray video isn’t bad either…Ed.]

—Mel Martin