The première of Mahler's Fifth Symphony took place in Cologne on October 18 1904. This performance at the Lucerne Festival took place almost precisely one hundred years later in August 2004. The music is as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. I had some mixed feelings about Abbado's audio recording of the Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic (although it gains something in its newish release on SACD) but I have no reservations about this live performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. First, a word about this orchestra. It has some orchestral superstars amongst its participants. Just look at some of the principals: Kolja Blacher, concertmaster; Wolfram Christ, principal viola; Franz Bartolomey and the fabulous Natalia Gutman, cello first desk; Alois Posch, contrabass; the Hagen Quartet in the sections, along with a couple from the Alban Berg Quartet; Jacques Zoon, flute; Albrecht Mayer, oboe; Sabine Meyer, clarinet, along with members of her Wind Ensemble (Bläserensemble); Stefan Schweigert, bassoon; Stefan Dohr, principal horn (he plays stunningly); Reinhold Friedrich, trumpet (he does, too); Mark Templeton, trombone. Wow! What a lineup! If you follow orchestral musicians you know this is very nearly the crème de la crème.
None of that would make a lot of difference if Abbado's direction was not distinguished. But it is. He molds every phrase precisely, clearly has thought and rethought his interpretation of this masterpiece, and he wrings all the drama, pathos, tenderness, heroism etc. from it. Rhythm and line are not sacrificed to overprecise nuance. Warmth and humanity are not diminished by attention to architectural detail. The first three movements have more dramatic edge that Abbado's earlier Berlin recording. The Adagietto is supremely beautiful but it does not dawdle (8:33) and thus become a dirge as is so often the case. It is, after all, a love song. The strings are simply fabulous throughout, with body and sheen aplenty, and plenty of bite in the dramatic and anguished moments.
There are other DVDs of Mahler's Fifth. I've not seen Barenboim's but am very fond of Rattle's with the Berlin. I like that performance but don't like the accompanying piece, Thomas Adès's 'Asyla,' for what that's worth. As far as audio recordings are concerned I'm extremely fond of Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic (only available, I think, these days in a budget twofer with the 'Lied von der Erde' with Agnes Baltsa and Klaus Konig, and not one of my favorites of that work) and of Barbirolli's, a little less so of Karajan's with the BPO. I tell you of my favorites on audio CD so you'll have an idea of what I tend to like. If they match your preferences, then you'll probably like this performance.
There is the usual video, but also a 'conductor's angle' (with the camera trained on Abbado from the orchestra player's perspective) available on this DVD. Sound is PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. TT=74 minutes no extras except some trailers of other DVDs.