To celebrate the 80th birthday of Claudio Abbado EuroArts reassembled a box of 8 DVDs – 7 concerts and a documentary – dubbed for the occasion "A life dedicated to music". "Life" may be slightly over-ambitious within this context, yet the box covers the years 1994 to 2007, in effect, a crucial period in the life and career of the Italian maestro, including his unexpected departure from the Berlin Philharmonic, his battle against cancer, and his miraculous recovery marked by a renewed interest in new-generation orchestral culture. In 1986 Abbado had already founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, soon followed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. After Berlin he moreover established the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, continuing a project inaugurated by Arturo Toscanini in the late 1930s, while the Orchestra Mozart which he formed in Bologna in 2004 gathers young musicians from various European countries. All these orchestras are represented in this box.
As said, the anniversary box-set contains only reissues (previously released on TDK and Arthaus) and Claudio Abbado aficionados will evidently own if not all, at least most of the titles offered here. For possible newbies there is however plenty to enjoy. Presenting Abbado's wide-ranging repertory in 8 discs may be an impossible task, but this box makes a fine attempt at offering quality as well as variety – although Abbado's well-known predilection for contemporary music is only hinted at in the included Paul Smaczny documentary "Hearing the Silence: Sketches for a Portrait".
For being a jubilee release the overall presentation is something of a letdown. The discs are housed in a lid-box which has the exact same cover shot as the "Claudio Abbado: A portrait" 4-DVD EuroArts release from 2009. The booklet is rather sparse about the performed works and especially what they mean to Abbado who returned to several of them repeatedly throughout his career. For the Verdi and Brahms Deutsches Requiem DVDs we have to do without texts (the Brahms can be viewed with various surtitles though). The DVDs are kept in slim but fragile and unhandy cardboard sleeve jackets and each time you pull out a disc you fear scratching it.
Each DVD is presented in 16:9 and has the choice of PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 – except for disc 2 (the Brahms, which even has the old Arthaus onscreen credits) and the documentary which are only in PCM Stereo. Sonics and video quality are generally agreeable, although a far stretch from the visual splendor and imagination of Karajan's concerts inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot's work in the 1960s. Most concerts were directed by Bob Coles and produced by Paul Smaczny. On a few instances the camera zooms in on orchestral soloists one doesn't really hear at that particular moment, but minor flaws like these are exceptional.
The oldest disc, and for my money the highlight of the whole set, captures the Berlin Philharmonic on tour in Tokyo in 1994, in an electrifying all-Russian concert. Both conductor and orchestra appear in stunning doing. St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain from Mussorgsky (a composer Abbado has always championed) is tremendous fun – and a shame that the producers forgot to mention that we hear the original Mussorgsky version, not the better known Rimsky-Korsakov alternate. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite is magical, while the performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is, aided by the superb sonority of the Berlin strings, one of Abbado's most successful attempts in this repertoire. Funny to see how in all the excitement of the final movement of the Tchaikovsky, Abbado accidentally hits the bow of concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa.
Another splendid performance is the Brahms Deutsches Requiem, recorded at the Vienna Musikverein on April 3, 1997, to mark the centenary of the composer's death. With two magnificent soloists (Barbara Bonney and Bryn Terfel), the excellent Eric Ericson Chamber Choir and Swedish Radio Choir complementing the Berlin Philharmonic, Abbado has pure luxury at his disposal, yet his subdued, almost meditative reading is no less deeply felt and human.
A lot has been said about the changes in sound and playing that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent during Claudio Abbado's directorship (he succeeded Herbert von Karajan in 1989 and led the orchestra until 2002). The Beethoven DVD, featuring the Eroica and the Ninth Symphonies from 2000/2001, allows to appreciate these changes in orchestral forces, transparency and balance, attack, tempi and dynamics well. A few quibbles set aside (like the rather indifferent sounding slow movement of the Ninth) both are highly satisfying performances with the orchestra in magnificent form – and always a pleasure to see distinguished artists like Emmanuel Pahud on flute and Hansjörg Schellenberger on oboe, shoulder to shoulder in the Ninth. The Ninth was salvaged from a complete Beethoven symphony cycle that Abbado recorded in Berlin in the first half of 2000 but later rejected in favor of an undoubtedly more successful attempt, taped live in Rome in February 2001, from which this beautifully fresh and lively Third was culled. As this disc also testifies Abbado changed dramatically in that period, fighting his disease and appearing terribly emaciated in the Rome performance.
Interestingly, the renewed attention paid to orchestral forces in performing Beethoven, is nowhere to be found in, for example, Tchaikovsky. The 1994 concert shows the orchestra in full force, with woodwinds and trumpets quadrupled, just as they would have been under Karajan.
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra can be seen and heard to great effect in the Beethoven/Bruckner concert from 2005. Each year Abbado gathers around the Mahler Chamber Orchestra an ensemble of internationally renowned artists, soloists and chamber musicians. In this edition one can recognize among others clarinetist Sabine Meyer, flutist Jacques Zoon, cellist Natalia Gutman, as well as members of the Alban Berg and Hagen Quartets. Compared to the Rome performance the sound may have lost some of its sparkle, and tempi slowed down in the Beethoven Piano Concerto #3 with Alfred Brendel as soloist. But other than that this is an insightful reading. The Bruckner Seventh allies a natural flow with beauty of sound.
A Claudio Abbado survey wouldn't be complete without at least one Mahler performance. Abbado has been conducting Mahler during his entire career and several of his discs remain prime choices. Included here is his 2004 traversal of the Ninth Symphony with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, taped in Rome. Deeply felt, as if guided by a sense of inner peace, Abbado softens the contrasts in dynamics, color and temperament to lead us towards a touching finale (although I could have done without the houselights slowly dimming to obscurity.)
The box doesn't omit Abbado as opera conductor, although only represented by concert performances of fragments of Verdi opera's – filmed as the Silvesterkonzert in 2000 at the Berlin Philharmonie. That said, the concert remains particularly enjoyable and forms an excellent introduction to some of Verdi's opera's. The semi-staged scenes from Un ballo in Maschera, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Don Carlos and La Traviata are vividly conducted, and sung and acted with immense flair by an attractive international cast including Andrea Rost, Carmela Remigio, Ramón Vargas, Anatoly Kocherga and Larissa Dyadkova.
The 2003 documentary from Paul Smaczny is what it says: "Sketches for a Portrait". Narrated by the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, a close friend of the conductor's, the portrait remains deliberately vague and incomplete at the end of the run. Don't expect to find out much more about the man Abbado and the film mainly considers the recent years. All too short rehearsal footage alternates with Hölderlin poetry (Abbado's favorite poet) and interviews with the maestro himself as well as with musicians who played with him.
The most recent disc features Abbado with his Orchestra Mozart performing the six Brandenburg Concertos from J.S. Bach in concert at the lovely Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli in Reggio Emilia, Italy in April 2007. Abbado's input is here definitely more modest, yet while there is no doubt these talented musicians could do as well without a "concertatore" or conductor, he subtly adds the finishing touches. There is an air of relaxed congeniality, of making music together, and with distinguished soloists like Giuliano Carmignola, Michala Petri, Jacques Zoon and Mario Brunelli, Abbado's creed on the importance of listening to each other is most convincingly put into practice. Or to paraphrase the maestro, if we would listen more to each other, it would be a better world.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman