All of a sudden, in this centennial year of the death of Mahler, there are now four Mahler Seconds on Blu-Ray.
ABBADO's Lucerne performance of 19/20 August 2003 was the first to appear on Blu-Ray. There was a sound problem with the initial release, but it has been fixed. My copy forms part of the boxed set of the first seven symphonies, where the First and the Second are combined onto one disc, the Third and Fourth on another, the Fifth and Sixth on another, while the Seventh is sole occupant of another disc. It is wonderful to have all the Mahler symphonies out on Blu-ray already so early in the life of the format, and the bulk of them presented by Abbado's handpicked Lucerne players. The contributions of Berlin veterans like clarinettist Sabine Meyer and flautist Emmanuel Pahud are highlighted in the Second, and their presence is missed in the First, which was recorded later. The blu-ray sound of the Second is astonishingly better than on the prior DVD release, and reveals one of the greatest performances of this work in our time. The performance and the disc are so perfect that it would have seemed like hubris to attempt another release. Yet three fine competitors have surfaced almost simultaneously.
CHAILLY's Leipzig performance of 17/18 May 2011 formed part of the first annual International Mahler Festival, along with a performance of Mahler's Eighth. The two symphonies both require large choral and orchestral forces, so there was practical advantage to having them both while the participants were available. The chorus masters Howard Arman, Simon Halsey and Gregor Meyer were certainly busy with rehearsals leading up to the festival, as the results testify. Ten years before, Chailly produced another outstanding high-resolution audio recording of this symphony, with the Concertgebouw; it was released both as a DVD-Audio disc and in a CD boxed set with the rest of the symphonic cycle.
GILBERT's New York performance of 11 September 2011 took place on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (To find this performance of the Second Symphony, search for "A Concert for New York" in Movies & TV.) In addition to the capacity crowd of 2646 people inside Avery Fisher Hall, a large screen outside in Lincoln Center Plaza accommodates a larger crowd, among whom are family members of the fallen. The conductor gives an impassioned introductory speech which has many audience members in tears, along with yours truly. In some ways the speech upstages the performance of the symphony. At least it certainly highlights the tragic and courageous aspects of the score, as opposed to the light touches, which are manifold. The performance certainly has a sense of occasion, and the choice of piece is particularly appropriate in view of the fact that Mahler himself conducted this orchestra in this piece on 8 December 1908.
BOULEZ's Berlin performance of 26/27 March 2005 makes a somewhat belated appearance on Blu-ray, after already having incarnations on DVD and HD-DVD. There is no way to compare with the latter, but the Blu-ray sound is a big, big leap from the DVD, which sounded anemic in both LPCM stereo and DTS. The LPCM stereo on the blu-ray sounds vastly better than the corresponding stereo on the DVD. To my ears the multi-channel sound on the Blu-ray is too bass-heavy (one of the microphone set-ups must have been near the basses), but others may prefer it. The occasion for this performance was the 80th birthday of the conductor, but unmentioned in the program notes is the fact that it was also near the 110th anniversary of the work's premiere, which took place right there in Berlin. So the Berliners conscientiously step into this piece as heirs to those who created it.
Of course the complete Abbado set is a must for the Mahler fan, but the other three performances of the Second are so fine that they too rise to the level of the indispensable.