After hearing most of Abbado's Mahler, early and late, I had formed the opinion that he steadily improved, moving from fussy caution to a real and deep understanding of Mahler's world. But just in case there were some early gems, I went back to this bargain two-fer of the Second and Fourth Syms. recorded in Chicago and Vienna. At present this packaging is the only way to acquire Abbado's earliest account of the Second; the Fourth can be had in his complete Mahler cycle.
Sym. #4: As you might expect from Vienna, the lyricism of the opening movement strikes with real poingnancy. Abbado's recent live remake with the Berlin Phil. bowled me over, but this VPO performance is just as winning. Some listeners may find the devil's fiddle too gentlemanly in the second movement, which Abbado plays rather fast and straight compared to, say, Bernstein. Mahler marks the slow movement "poco Adagio," but Abbado, like James Levine, opts for an all-out Adagio. Happily, the flexible phrasing of the incomparable Vienna strings enables a very slow melodic line to hold together ravishingly. Abbado seems to have a penchant for choosing off-beat soloists in the finale -- Renee Felming with her plush, mature soprano in his later recording and mezzo Frederica von Stade here. I don't think another mezzo has recorded the role. Von Stade sounds fresh and encompasses the notes well, but she does little to sound innocent and child-like. Her success depends entirely upon musical skill and beauty of tone. In all, an outstanding Fourth that has been overlooked.
Sym. #2: Solti was such an attack dog that he ruined my conception of the CSO, which was capable of amazing nuance under Reiner. They are reacquainted with their sensitive side here under Abbado. Unlike Solti's famed Mahler Seconds, the first movement isn't fierce and biting. If anything, Abbado seems a little soft-grained, but he shows great natural instincts in this music, bridging Mahler's dramatic contrasts very convincingly. The second movement minuet is delicate but alert -- too often this movement falls flat while the audience waits for the dam to burst in the last movement.
Post-Bernstein one has come to expect the Scherzo to contain a good deal of satiric edge. Abbado starts off with gunshot strokes of the timpani, but his approach to this movement remains on the effete side; it sounds like a continuation of the preceding classical mood. The best thing here is the playing of the woodwinds, which is full of character even at low temperature. Marilyn Horne defies her image as a leather-lung extrovert by singing "Urlicht" with grave sincerity. The floodgates are expected to open next, and they do, with phenomenal tutti playing from the brass section. DG's engineering thankfully doesn't land them in our laps, so we get to hear nice counterpoint from the woodwind soloists.
Mahler has managed the finale's unfolding apocalypse so skillfully that conductors are well advised not to get in his way, and Abbado doesn't. He sees it as his job to deliver the most perfect orchestral balance at a steady pace. It goes without saying that the CSO chorus outdoes almost every other on CD for sheer accuracy and beauty of tone. When another reviewer speaks of being brought to tears, I think the chorus's hushed reverence must have been the cause.
In the end, I was thrilled to discover two great performances that were lying right under my nose. I agree with the previous comment that this is Abbado's best (of three) Mahler Second, and the Fourth can stand comparison with any.