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Mahler Symphony No 5

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
Album Review: Mahler Symphony No 5, Berlin PO, Claudio Abbado
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When Deutsche Grammophon released Claudio Abbado’s Berlin recording of Mahler’s 5th symphony on CD in 1993, the notion that – in 30 or so years time – DG would issue it on LP would have seemed absurd; impossible; stark staring bonkers.

Abbado’s Mahler 5 was one of DG’s first 4D recordings. Taken from live performances given in the Berlin Philharmonie, it’s a powerful refined account with smooth, open, natural sound, and an enormously-wide dynamic range. A to D converters were used close to the microphones in order to digitise signals as soon as possible. 

The performance lasts a shade under 70m and for vinyl it’s spread over four LP sides. Previous vinyl issues nearly always put Mahler 5 on three sides. This meant having the first two movements on side one, resulting in a fairly long playing time around the 27m to 29m mark.

Abbado takes a little over 27m for the first two movements, but with each on a single LP side there’s no problem for the disc mastering engineer having to try and cut a long side while maintaining a fairly high volume level. However, cutting levels are not especially high. They might easily have been raised 3dB or more. I want to see nice deep squiggly grooves! 

Fortunately, the surfaces on DG’s new pressings are super-quiet. Vinyl roar and surface ticks and pops are very low, so you can increase volume levels and not hear any background noise. My pressings were very clean and quiet, though side three was a wee bit ‘swishy’ in places – hopefully a fault limited to my particular set. 

Comparing Abbado’s Mahler 5 LPs with Karajan’s (released in 1975), the older set is cut at the same peak level but subjectively the sound has more immediacy and heft. That said Karajan’s climaxes sometimes feel slightly compressed – perhaps due to analogue tape squash.

On my equipment, Abbado’s smooth sweet-sounding recording has less immediacy than Karajan’s, which is sharper and more-focused. Tonally, DG’s best 4D recordings sounded very natural and open with no fake digital brightness or glare, but could sometimes sound almost too neutral.

It sounds like Abbado’s Tonmeister Gernot von Schultzendorff used a simple microphone technique. The 4D process allowed time-delay, enabling close and distantly-placed microphones to integrate-better and create phase-coherent results. So perhaps that’s why any spot-mics used are so discreet.

From a balance and perspective standpoint, there’s no question that Abbado’s Berlin Mahler 5 is much less ‘stage managed’ than many of DG’s recordings from the previous 15 years or so. You sense the sound captured is just as it happened, live in the hall.

The Philharmonie in Berlin is an unusual hall, placing the orchestra in the centre of the auditorium rather than an enclosed space near a rear wall. Abbado’s performance was recorded in front of an audience (with applause at the end), so this would have damped the sound somewhat. 

Abbado’s Mahler 5 is sumptuously played – sleek, powerful, trenchant, with exquisite detail. It’s a refined sophisticated virtuoso rendition. Surprisingly, Karajan is less polished, but more passionate, throwing caution to the wind for the excitement of the moment. His Adagietto is to die for. 

Both are superlative readings, and stand high among the best Mahler 5s. But does being on vinyl add anything extra to the Abbado/Berlin set over CD/SACD? I’m not sure it does. Abbado’s vinyl sounds good, but the SACD showcases the original recording with far greater fidelity.

Abbado’s vinyl doesn’t quite give you that extra sense of holographic-dimensionality and spacious-richness that’s there with DG’s Kubelik and Karajan Mahler 5 LPs. It’s good, but would have sounded much-more vivid if cutting levels had been a few dB higher… 


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