Gustav Mahler was one of the last "classical" composers. Of course, the term classical is in quotation marks because as any music scholar knows, classical music is a term for music composed between 1730-1820. But Mahler, being a late-era Romantic composer, is more associated with the classical tradition than the modern symphonic trends, especially with his firm grounding in tonality. He's best known for his nine symphonic works (an unfinished tenth has been recorded and others have even tried to finish it), and the second, dubbed "Resurrection," was the most popular during his lifetime, and still maintains a high degree of favor among audiences and musicians alike.
Mahler's second symphony (the title "Resurrection" is often used, but is not actually listed on the sheet music) is a treatise on life, morality, and meaning. Its first movement represents a funeral. It's violent and intense. Mahler intended the audience to ponder such questions as whether or not there is an afterlife in this movement. The second is a remembrance of the happiest times in the life of the deceased. It still has a ring of melancholy, but it provides a necessary counterpoint to the surrounding movements. The third movement is most notable for ending with what Mahler described as either a "cry of despair" or "death shriek." The fourth decries life without meaning, and leads seamlessly into the fifth, which, after reiterating and altering themes from the other four movements, ends with an exultation for rebirth and transcendence. The symphony is both haunting and beautiful, with deep intensity of feeling.
Famed French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has always had a fondness for Mahler, conducting all of his symphonies for release on record or CD. As part of a celebration of his 80th birthday, Boulez chose to conduct Mahler's second symphony. For a man of eighty, Boulez is remarkably alert, with a spring in his step as he approaches the podium. You can tell the orchestra is excited to be performing with a master; they all grew up in the wake of Boulez's influence. In his honor, they give a rousing performance that one will want to hear again and again.
Listening to the inescapable power of the music on display, it's interesting to note that for many years, Mahler's popularity was considered a fad. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that Mahler's works, championed by such renowned composers and conductors as Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, gained a strong degree of acceptance from the critical community. However, even 20th century titan Igor Stravinsky thought little of Mahler, calling him malheur (French for "misfortune"). Still, all those objections fall away in the face of the music itself: Stirring, powerful, and better than ever in this brand new high definition recording.
The HD DVD:
Opus Arte presents the disc in a 1.78:1 1080i VC-1 encoded transfer. In general, the high definition image is strong, with a great detail of sharpness. The stage is brightly lit, revealing plenty of information. At times, it seems the image may have had slight edge enhancement applied. It's also not entirely consistent, with some shots appearing softer than others.
The lossless Dolby True HD 5.1 mix is absolutely astounding. The intricate instrumentations of Mahler's work is aptly displayed, with all kinds of sonic details. The track is powerful, with a heft to its attack that is most impressive. Also available is a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix.
Mahler's second symphony is still one of his most popular, and this new recording, conducted by Pierre Boulez, proves just why that is. The sound on the disc is worth the price of admission alone. If only every great work of musical art had such a great aural representation. While it has no extras, this disc is worth seeking out for fans of Mahler's work. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.