Utah Symphony Orchestra (Abravanel) – ‘Mahler: Symphony No.2, Resurrection’ A DVD-Audio review by Chris Salocks

The first thing you notice about the MLP multi-channel version of this 1967 recording, especially in comparison to just about any other recording of the ‘Resurrection, is the vast space around the musicians, both front-to-back and side-to-side. And it’s not the type of space that obscures clarity and blunts articulation, even though the microphones seem fairly distantly placed. Rather, it’s a kind of life-enhancing sonic environment, so necessary for the large symphonic canvases of Bruckner and Mahler.

The environment on this recording is of course the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where Abravanel and the Utah Symphony recorded their entire Mahler cycle. In a short but interesting video bonus feature on this recording, principal second violinist John Chatelain explains that for the Utah Symphony recording of the Mahler ‘Eighth Symphony’, the technicians covered the seats with blankets some thirty rows out, so as to control the reverberation a bit. I would guess that the same procedure must have been implemented for this recording too. It’s a wonderful sonic picture, slightly distant, but completely appropriate to the dimensions of this work.

Some critics go so far as to say that the tonal qualities of an orchestral recording are more dependent on the hall than on the musicians. I would like to think that, on the contrary, listeners can discern the difference between the playing itself and a flattering acoustic which may help to project it. It’s on this point that a few doubts may arise about the performance at hand.

The first difficulty is that, for all the allure of the acoustics, the strings themselves sound a little anemic in comparison to most other recordings of this work – almost as if there were not quite enough string players in the orchestra. No amount of reverberation can disguise this. In comparison, the only other recording of the ‘Resurrection Symphony currently available in DVD-Audio format – the Teldec performance with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic – presents listeners with the opposite phenomenon: a potentially problematical acoustic (the dryish Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv – which nevertheless has been well mitigated by the engineering), and an orchestra which boasts a big, powerful string sonority. A comparison of the wild opening figures in the cellos and double basses in each performance is telling: one keeps wanting more from Abravanel than his orchestra seems able to provide, while Mehta obtains the requisite heft and bite.

In addition, the unanimity of pitch in the Utah Symphony strings is slightly less perfect than on the competing recordings I used for comparison. Different listeners will respond with more or less sensitivity to slight differences in the centering of pitch, but based on back and forth comparisons between this and other renditions of the work, I was often struck by the spread of the pitch in the strings on this recording – the spread was slight, but it was still bothersome.

Although this recording was well regarded in its day (and surely has never sounded better than in this multichannel DVD-Audio incarnation!), I suspect that some of the accolades may have resulted more from the engineering than from the performance. Of course, nothing major goes wrong in Abravanel’s rendition, but its accumulation of small defects may induce some minor inattention for some listeners by the end of the performance. In addition to the thin string tone and the spread in the string pitch, some of the rhythms are a little cavalierly subdivided. This is noticeable at the very opening and at measures 37-38 (6 measures before rehearsal number 2), where the full orchestra plays descending scale figures in dotted rhythms. In this performance, the dotted rhythms lapse noticeably into triplets. It’s true that many performances, not just this one, slip into triplet rhythms here, but this interpretation is, again, just a little further away from Mahler’s notation in terms of rhythmic discipline.

Some lapses in this performance clearly result from the players’ enthusiasm – I’m thinking of places where rests don’t get their full value in the players’ eagerness to proceed. In a way, this eagerness has a certain attractiveness – better this than the staid routine of too many performances these days. But enthusiasm need not be incompatible with discipline, and one ends up wishing that Abravanel had enforced the rhythmic subdivisions with more rigor.

Other aspects of this performance serve the music well: both vocal soloists (Florence Kopleff and Beverly Sills) carry off their assignments with sensitivity and tonal attractiveness, and the University of Utah Civic Chorale makes a solid contribution. Indeed, for a certain type of listener, one who feels that Mahler’s rhetoric is frequently in danger of spilling into self-parody, Abravanel’s “laid back” performance, with its distant perspective and sometimes small-scale feel, may be just the right antidote to the hyper-emotional, lapel-grabbing approaches of some conductors. I sympathize with this view to some extent, but feel that Abravanel veers too far towards a kind of lax Gemütlichkeit.

As for alternatives, the aforementioned Mehta/Teldec performance (88.2kHz 24-bit) is stronger than the Abravanel in just about every respect (save for the vocal soloists and the acoustic of the recording locale), with a particularly fine contribution from the Prague Philharmonic Choir. This Mehta / Israel Philharmonic performance would be my current choice on DVD-Audio.

I have not heard any of the current SACD performances as of this writing, but on CD, I prefer the under-appreciated 1993 Vaclav Neumann / Czech Philharmonic performance on Canyon (not to be confused with the 1980 Neumann / Czech Philharmonic performance on Supraphon), despite what some listeners feel is an overly rapid set of tempos for the first movement. Unfortunately, the Canyon label does not seem to have received wide distribution, and I’m not sure what the current availability of this performance is. In addition, the Mehta / Vienna Philharmonic performance on Decca/London shares many of the same virtues of his DVD-Audio performance, with (needless to say!) an even more lustrous orchestral contribution, but without the option for multi-channel sound.

On this last point, let me emphasize that the ‘Resurrection’ is a work that cries out for multi-channel sound. If you’ve only heard this work in stereo, you can’t imagine the depth and realism which the 5.1 format provides for large-scale works such as this symphony. As I said at the beginning of this review, multi-channel is life-enhancing for this type of music.