MAHLER "Symphony No. 6" Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic (DG 289 477 5684, two SACDs) Grade: B-minus
For all the hand-wringing about CD sales, new cycles of the Mahler symphonies continue under conductors Claudio Abbado, Michael Tilson Thomas and Benjamin Zander.
Abbado's account of the Sixth represents the polar opposite of the Bernstein approach. Scrubbed clean of neurosis, this is Mahler as virtuoso - and exquisite - master of the orchestra. That's no small accomplishment, and one can certainly marvel at the almost superhuman finesse Abbado gets out of the Berliners. But one misses the music's sometimes sinister force - and, frankly, its transcendence.
The Andante moderato (here the second movement, following Mahler's second thoughts) is beautifully but a bit briskly done, more a peck on the cheek than a tender embrace. Bernstein's Vienna version, also on DG, remains uniquely compelling. But if you have an SACD player, the new set's stunningly realistic sound will more than vindicate the investment.
MOZART "Violin Sonatas, K. 303, 304, 377, 526" Steinberg, Uchida (Philips 475 6200, hybrid SACD/CD disc) Grade: A-plus
If you've ever been tempted to dismiss Mozart's sonatas for violin and piano as inconsequential trifles, these electric performances will change your mind. This is playing charged with life: elegance as well as excitement, whimsy as well as poignancy.
Mark Steinberg is the too-rare violinist who treats vibrato as a genuine expressive device, to be applied selectively and in varying degrees. That it isn't draped over everything like ketchup on french fries makes it all the more telling - and lends a silvery sweetness to his tone.
Mitsuko Uchida's no less personable pianism could use a slightly clearer sonic focus, but the SACD recording captures both instruments and the reverberant acoustics of England's Snape Maltings concert hall with uncanny, reach-out-and-touch-it realism.
(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.