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I’ve just finished watching another DVD featuring my new
“favorite” orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted
by Claudio Abbado. This concert was taped during August 2009,
and the featured works were Sergei Prokofiev’s
“Third Piano Concerto” and Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1.”
I’m quite familiar with both of these pieces, as I’ve played both
of them. In addition, I’ve seen and heard “umpteen” different
recordings and performances. All things considered, I can
honestly say that I have never experienced better performances
of both of these works, either as a spectator/listener or a
member of the orchestra. Based upon the sheer musicality,
carefully gauged tempi and ensemble passages, as well as
the overall view of each piece, I believe that these are my
favorite performances of these compositions, which is saying a lot.

I’d heard of pianist Yuja Wang before, but I’d never heard
her play. I found her interpretation of the Prokofiev
“Third Piano Concerto” to have just the right combination of
lyricism and whimsy, while also properly percussive when
indicated. It just sounded “right” to my ears, and the
recording engineers captured her tone wonderfully. In
addition, the aforementioned tempi for all three movements
were ideal and not rushed, resulting in greater clarity and
allowing the solo orchestral passages to shine. The fact that
the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is largely made up of soloists
and chamber musicians pays big dividends in orchestral music,
because listening to each other, in addition to watching the
conductor, can only result in better music making. I noticed
that Maestro Abbado eschewed the baton, and I wondered
if this was becoming a trend for him. At any rate, he was an
ideal accompanist in the “Concerto.”

Actually, I’m more familiar with Mahler’s “First Symphony,”
than the Prokofiev “Concerto,” having performed it many times,
with two different orchestras. Therefore, I felt I was in a better
position to evaluate Maestro Abbado’s performance of this work.
I was particularly pleased with his choice of tempi in all four
movements, both in terms of the basic tempi as well as the
subtle gradations of tempo within each movement. The
phrasing was exquisite throughout, as were the dynamic
changes that were so important with Mahler’s works. I cannot
recall ever having been more satisfied or even as satisfied
with another performance of this work, and the sound
engineering was great.

Apart from the poor treatment of the horn section, the
camera work was also quite good. Unfortunately,
Andrej Nicolay, the director of photography for this film,
neglected to show the entire horn section, with the exception
of brief shots during the finale. Even then, I had to be
on my toes, and draw upon my familiarity with the score.
This symphony requires seven horns, and I felt it was a
major oversight to largely ignore them. In my opinion, any
time a piece calls for a larger or smaller than normal
contingent of section players, the camera work should
acknowledge it. What on earth was he thinking???

Nevertheless, the horn section stood during the end
of the piece, and I was pleased to see an auxiliary trumpet and
trombone. This practice was in keeping with Mahler’s alleged
final thoughts, vis-à-vis the instrumentation of the piece,
as it was revised a number of times after its five movement,
premiere performance in 1889.

The accompanying booklet and reverse side of the DVD cover
both indicate that this concert was recorded live, during
the dates of August 11 through August 15, 2009. With five days
of performances to reference, I’d be interested in knowing
how the edits were handled. It seemed pretty seamless to me.
Apart from the aforementioned lack of attention to the horn
section by the cameras, I’d give the highest marks to this
93-minute DVD on the EuroArts label.