Abbado has the enviable reputation of being one of the world's finest Mahler conductors. This has been further reinforced by his set of performances held at Lucerne with his hand-picked orchestra constituting the Lucerne Festival orchestra. This very large orchestra, apart from containing musicians of outstanding individual abilities, also lays great stress upon their empathy and experience with the world of chamber music. Thus is achieved the unusual combination of orchestral size allied to individual and corporate sensitivity. This suits Abbado's particular vision of Mahler and this is apparent throughout this very fine performance which some would describe as close to definitive.
This symphony used to be known as `The Song of the Night' when I first got to hear it on a recording from the 1950's. At that time my awareness of Mahler was somewhat sketchy with a good understanding of the first symphony that I had had to analyse for an exam and some passing acquaintance with the symphonies 2, 3 and 4. Performances of Mahler were rare and sought-after events back then. That was all a long time ago and the world is different now with many performances to choose from as recordings. The 7th symphony is still considered one of the trickiest to get to know.
Mahler appears to have written the two Nachtmusik movements first but they are very different in character. The first one is said to be more of an outdoor event but the second is more of an indoor event and may also have been the very first of the movements to have been written. This impression of the indoors is reinforced by the instrumentation which features a mandolin and a guitar. Many of the orchestral members are also treated soloistically. This suits the nature of Abbado's approach to making music with the orchestra of course.
The central movement is a scherzo and is a fragmentary and somewhat grotesque treatment of waltz and landler dance rhythms. The whole effect is somewhat mysterious and full of fleeting shadows, possibly ghost-like. Abbado clearly has fun conducting it.
The last movement could be described as being generally of an optimistic and joyful nature and as such contrasts with the denser and darker first movement. The progression of the symphony has been described as moving from dark to light and that concept is not difficult to follow in broad terms.
The generously spacious layout of the orchestra allows the camera work to succeed in providing both sensitive detail as well as panoramic views. This visual element makes a telling contribution as we are able to see the changing body language of the conductor which matches the concept of the progression towards light and this adds to our understanding of the sounds he brings to our attention.
The addition of images to the aural coverage of this music is a great advantage in a work such as this and Abbado and his orchestra make for compelling guides. The sound itself is presented in wide-ranging DTS 5.1 and stereo formats and captures all of this with admirable lucidity.
Abbado has an international reputation of being perhaps the leading exponent of the Mahler symphonies at this time and in particular of the 7th symphony. In my opinion this is fully justified and this recording is a clear contender for the full 5 stars and should give much pleasure and satisfaction to most future purchasers.