Originally Posted by Bunnyears
It's not the band, it's the conductors. FWIW, they sounded very lush with von Karajan and Bernstein and now sound thin to the point of anorexia under Rattle who just carried Abbado's trend to a leaner orchestral sound to a greater extreme. If you listen to Abbado's recordings with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, they have the same sound. Btw, is the sound a bit recessed as well? I've tried the cd and the sacd of the M2 (Lucerne Festival O.) and still find the sound quality of that hard to deal with in any format.
Fwiw, Ted Levine
reviewed it for Amazon, and he also hated Renée Fleming's work here. In fact, he seems to have hated the whole recording:
Sorry to join this conversation after it was over, but I just got the new Abbado M4. I'm listening to it right now and I'm finding it a hell of a lot better than some of the reviews out there make it sound. Despite what Ted Levine says, Abbado is not being "fussy," he's merely making sure that all the players are characterizing the music, or as Frank Zappa used to say, "putting the eyebrows on it." Any Mahler performance which doesn't do this isn't worth hearing.
I would find it interesting to hear Abbado and the Berliners live in concert to confirm my impression of their current sound world. In short, I'd have to say that there is an intentionally lean sound here which is being exaggerated by the DG over-miked recording technique. But the playing is also very lively and full of personality, so it isn't anemic or anything like that. The issue that so many seem to have is that Abbado severely "pruned back" the BPO lushness, and Rattle has continued that process. And that is a very definite change in the band. Sorry Bunny, but it's not just the conductors in this case. These two music directors have intentionally thinned-out the Karajan sound by hiring young players with very different styles as the older players retired. I don't know an exact statistic, but I believe I heard somewhere that at this point, less than 20 years after HvK, only a couple of his players are still in the ensemble. The current band is one of the youngest major orchestras, and that youthfulness is part of their sound. They couldn't play Karajan style lushness (Mantovani for snobs) if their lives depended on it. And that's fine in my book, because-- at least under Abbado-- they have an attractive, youthful, supple style.
Now for those who thought Karajan's sound was good for Mahler, it would be easy to decry the current lean sound. But I can really see why Abbado did it. The ensemble in the late 80's had horribly stagnated with generic lush sound. And even in the 70's and early 80's I don't think their sound was right for Mahler (Karajan's live 9th is great because he does it with conviction, not because it sounds natural to that orchestra). Abbado tried to move the orchestra as far away as possible from the HvK sound. It seems he may ultimately have been a little too efficient in his pruning. And as for Rattle, well, who knows what to make of some of his choices.
But as for this new Abbado M4, I think it's very good. Loads better than his VPO recording. With the VPO, Abbado tried to be "profound" in the slow movement by taking it very slowly... around 25 minutes of pointless meandering. He now does the movement in less than 20 minutes and you can feel that he now knows where & why every single phrase is going, and he clarifies the contrasts between sections. The only serious issue I have with this recording is Renee Fleming in the finale. She's a great singer, but not for this particular number. Sounds like a DG marketing choice. I don't know if I've ever heard a less child-like and innocent version of the soprano solo. Mahler as Bellini, I guess. Very Shatneresque. But Abbado's work with the orchestra in the finale is still of high-quality. So, minus the occasional scenery-chewing soprano, this performance is very good, and the recorded sound is clear, though far from radiant. Fleming is more in her dramatic element with Berg's "Seven Early Songs" which fills up the disc.