Classical Explorer's first Mahler Ninth should really be an exalted one. While, for me, Bernstein's live Mahler Ninth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Barbican in the 1980s was transformative, the DG recording (not from the same concert but contemporaneous) does not hold the same power. This performance by Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (on Accentus Music) does seem to convey the feeling of a properly great performance, though.
In terms of the two performances, there is something of an equivalence of excellence, despite a very different approach (not least in speeds!). Claidio Abbado (1933-2013) was always in the upper echelon of conductors, but his final flowering revealed his greatness.
The tenderness of the srtings after that mysterious opening is remarkable, and Abbado's pace seems absoltely perfect. And yet the keening of the horn brings intimations of disaster'. This was Abbado's hand-picked orchestra, each member of which knew the score inside out, and one can see and hear how infinitely responsive they are to Abbado's direction, how they understand the long paragraphs as well as the detail. Mahler uses a repeating, fateful rhythm (a technique sometimes, and more often in realation to Berg's music, called a Hauptrhythmus) that occurs in truly frightwning guise at climaxes; Abbado fully realises its import. As the first movement progresses, it becomes clear that here is preternatural accuracy married to the mix of live concert and very special, highly anticipated event.
The first movement expands over a vast canvas (although it only takes 27 minutes). With the second movement we are in the world of Mahlerian folk dance, of Ländler viewed through is very pwesonal prism. Abbado never lets us forget there is a dance here, but there are some truly disturbing interruptions. Few conductors do this movement as well as Abbado - perhaps only Bruno Walter had that added sense of rustic authenticiy to his reading. Here is Walter in 1938 with the Vienna Philharmonic (it's the complete symphony) :
If there is a parallel between Bernstein and Abbado it is the third movement (although they depart in that Bernstein, if memory serves, hardly conducted this movement at all, while Abbado is characteristically methodical and clear). Mahler's counterpoint is horrifically complex in this movement, and with Abbado one hears everything while embarked on some sort of wild, hallucinogenic helter-skelter ride.
The finale raises questions. Was it valedictory? There's that long slow disappearance into silence; and yet he fully intended to finish his Tenth Symphony (and we have our various reconstructions, most famously Deryck Cooke, to give us an idea of what it might have sounded like). With Bernstein, one felt the music was disappearing into an eternity beyond; Abbado's coiled intensity is transfixing, too, in a different way, there's more hope as the cor anglais plaintively sings its song. Bernstein and Abbado do have a point of contact in the close though - both hold the silence forever.
A wonderful, great (in the true sense) performance.
Here's a video of the whole Ninth; but how magnificent this sounds through a proper hi-fi set-up on the DVD/Bluray:Mahler 9 Abbado (DVD)Mahler 9 Abbado (Bluray)