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CD Review

Early Recordings

  • Ludwig van Beethoven:
  • Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus", Op. 43 7
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92 7
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93 7
  • Johannes Brahms:
  • Rinaldo, Op. 50 1,4,6
  • Schicksalslied, Op. 54 4,6
  • Felix Mendelssohn:
  • Symphony #3 in A minor "Scottish"
  • Symphony #4 in A Major "Italian"
  • Serge Prokofieff:
  • Symphony #1 in D Major "Classical", Op. 25
  • Symphony #3 in C minor, Op. 44
  • Suite from Chout, Op. 21b
  • Suite from Romeo and Juliet
  • Anton Bruckner: Symphony #1 in C minor (Linz Version) 7
  • Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta
  • Giuseppe Verdi:
  • I vespri siciliani
  • patria … O tu, Palermo 3
  • Simon Boccanegra
  • A te l'estremo addio … Il lacerato spirito 3
  • Nabucco
  • Gli arredi festivi … Sperate, o figli … D'Egitto là sui lidi 2,3
  • Va, pensiero … Oh, chi piange? … Del futuro nel buio discerno 3
  • Macbeth
  • Chi v'impose unirvi a noi? … Come dal ciel precipita 3
  • Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
1 James King, tenor
2 Leslie Fyson, tenor
3 Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass
4 Ambrosian Chorus
5 Ambrosian Singers
6 New Philharmonia Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
7 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Decca 4785365 7CDs
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This is Claudio Abbado's complete Decca output, at least until his last years. Much like the great conductor's career, some of this is quite good, some of it is middling at best, and some of it is just bad. Certainly he was a great artist, and his early recordings demonstrate a wide variety of music with some of the great ensembles and soloists of the age. Unfortunately, at this (any?) point in his career, this good and gentle man could be very erratic in any of the composers that he did not completely master. On the other hand, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Verdi were unquestionably in Abbado's comfort zone, and these early readings display a confidence and ease with these works that would continue throughout his long career.

Beethoven was not a composer that Abbado ever showed much affinity for, although his 2010 recordings of the symphonies in Berlin are supposed to be excellent. His first two complete cycles (both on Deutsche Grammophon, one in Vienna, one in Berlin) are iffy, with nobody particularly interested in the former. These early Vienna readings – Abbado's first with Decca – are even worse. Even the set's booklet notes are dismissive of the Symphony #7, a really terrible rendition that says absolutely nothing about the music except that the Philharmonic would have been better served without him there at all. The Symphony #8 is better (most things are) but still doesn't match any of the orchestra's great readings of the past. The Overture is serviceable.

Things certainly improve with Brahms, a composer that Abbado was consistent with as he was inconsistent with Beethoven. Abbado's Brahms set was arguably the high point – at least on disc – of the conductor's tenure in Berlin, and these comparative rarities make a fine program. From the very first notes of Rinaldo, you sense that Abbado has the full measure of this music, conjuring a deep, luxuriant sound from the New Philharmonia. The men of the Ambrosian Chorus sing commandingly, too. Okay, so the work itself isn't all that special, and James King is either thrilling or obnoxious. For me, this is not some of his better work. In Schicksalslied, King is out of the picture, and the Ambrosian Chorus takes center stage. This is another work that I don't have a ton of enthusiasm for, but certainly there isn't another conductor who made a better case for it.

Disc three captures Abbado's first recording of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #1. Talk about a niche market within a niche market! Bruckner's First had very few recordings then or now, as is often the case with a composer that many find a hard one to find much love for. Even fewer love this work, which is actually pretty interesting in places. At any rate, this is one of the better versions out there, but one which says far less about Abbado than it attests to the quality of the Vienna Philharmonic. Still, I can't imagine anyone serious about classical music not wanting to hear the Philharmonic in such excellent form, and Abbado does bring some youthful vigor to the score. If you want a fine Bruckner #1, this will fit the bill.

Like Brahms, Abbado was a tireless champion of Mendelssohn over the years, and nearly every one of his recordings of that composer are at least recommendable. This coupling is not part of his later DG cycle with the same orchestra, and shows the young conductor in a more excitable mood. Abbado always worked well in London, and these early accounts may be preferable for some listeners on account of the higher energy level. The DG cycle brings maturity, but if you love the composer, you'll own that as a matter of course. This disc is easily one of the better ones in the set.

The Prokofieff disc is also worthwhile. The Classical symphony receives a typically fresh and invigorating reading, although I'm not sure why the lapses that I hear in ensemble weren't corrected. It feels a touch coarse, and is inferior to the conductor's later version with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. On the other hand, Abbado never again recorded the Symphony #3, and it's a really good one. The composer's early symphonies don't get much attention save for the Classical – they kind of sound like Soviet air raids – but playing the heck out of this music is usually just the right approach, and it works very well here. The work is based on music from The Fiery Angel, an opera that (to my knowledge) only my best friend really enjoys. The whole score is so hellish that sometimes in operatic staging there is a tavern scene just to make the whole thing more enjoyable, and sometimes not. This symphony is the equivalent to a performance that steadfastly ignores the fun; it's dark, brutish, and enigmatic. I highly doubt that late Abbado could have managed this without making it sound like junk. Speaking of junk, the plot of Chout is beyond comprehension, so I suggest that you ignore it and focus on the music at hand. It's actually quirky and fun, in contrast to the actual story, and both conductor and orchestra seemingly have a good time.

More Prokofieff features on the next disc, which features three reasonably well known performances in good sound. While none of these are reference editions, they do show Abbado in superior form compared to his later efforts in Berlin, and certainly have their admirers. All three works are hardly lacking for excellent versions, but the London Symphony plays excellently, especially in the Hindemith, which is probably the best of the lot. The set concludes with a highly successful disc of Verdi opera scenes, which herald the young conductor's emergence as the great Verdi interpreter to come. Nicolai Ghiaurov can be found in excellent voice, as can the Ambrosian Singers (Abbado always did draw ravishing choral singing from his charges). He also manages to get the London Symphony to play with a real theatric flair, not something easily done with this bunch.

Of the seven discs here, only the Beethoven strikes me as a total failure. The Brahms and Bruckner are good, but obscure enough to preclude recommendation on those programs alone. The Mendelssohn is fresher than his late work, but also less interpretively complete, which is certainly an issue. The two discs of 20th-century music are above average without being exemplary, while the Verdi disc is thrilling. All told, there is no reason not to have this if you're an Abbado fan, but also no reason to have this if you aren't. It's nice to have these recordings together for the first time, but that might be its sole selling point. You'll know if you want this.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman