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New York City
November 2003

Claudio Abbado: A Unique Musical Personality

by Irving Spitz

A perspective from live performances, DVDs and CDs

The Lucerne Summer Festival is one of the major venues for music lovers, and with its acoustically perfect concert hall on the shores of a lake, there could hardly be a more idyllic setting. This year’s festival featured performances by the Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg, Munich and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras as well as the Symphony Orchestras of Pittsburgh, Chicago, City of Birmingham, The Concert-gebouw, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and several others.

At the first Festival in 1938, Arturo Toscanini founded a Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which was disbanded only a few years ago. Now 65 years later, Claudio Abbado has resurrected the Festival Orchestra. His unique ensemble was made up of members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (established by Abbado himself in the mid 90’s), members of other great international symphony orchestras including first flautist, Emmanual Pahud of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble, the Hagen quartet as well as several soloists including Kolya Blacher, violinist, cellist Natalia Gutman and the remarkable Capucon brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier. All these artists were hand picked by Abbado, who has worked closely with them in the past and counts them as his personal friends.

The music making was remarkable. In the course of eight days, Abbado successfully welded his colleagues into a brilliant ensemble. To the casual listener, it was as though they had been playing together for decades. The opening concert featured the incomparable Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Wotan in the closing scene from Wagner’s Walkure. The remainder of the program comprised Debussy’s suite La Mer and his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. In these flawless performances, Abbado and his orchestra proved that they were equally adept at both the German and French repertoire.

In the second concert, Abbado showed his mettle with music of the baroque and gave inspiring and unforgettable performances of Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos. Everyone knows and recognizes these works but it takes a really great ensemble to play them well. Abbado succeeded beyond expectation with the outstanding instrumentalists at his disposal, especially violinist, Rainer Kussmaul.

The real piece de resistance was a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, in which the orchestra was joined by the Spanish Orfeon Donostiarra Choir and two outstanding soloists, Russian soprano Eteri Gvazava and Swedish mezzo Anna Larsson. At the two rehearsals of this work I attended, the unique rapport between conductor and orchestra was readily apparent, indeed almost palpable. At the conclusion of the dress rehearsal there were tears in the eyes of some of the musicians.

Adding to the triumph was the superb acoustics of the Lucerne Concert Hall. Even the softest diminuendos as well as the offstage brass sections could be clearly heard. The orchestra playing was awesome. One could not want more from an ensemble. Abbado projected the flow and structure of the symphony and kept the music moving slowly, slyly and inexorably to its dramatic climax.

As mezzo-soprano Ana Larson told me after the concert, she felt privileged to be part of this unforgettable musical experience. This deeply moving and arresting performance of the Mahler second symphony will remain indelibly imprinted in the minds of orchestra and audience alike. For me, this will forever remain the standard by which future performances will be judged.

The recording company Deutsche Grammophon (DGG) has maintained a unique and fruitful relationship with Claudio Abbado for over 36 years. They have issued hundreds of his recordings, a feat probably unprecedented in the music industry. Coinciding with the current festival they released a live performance of orchestral highlights from Wagner’s Tannhauser, Parsifal and Tristan with the Berlin Philharmonic. The Swedish Radio Chorus supply accompaniment in the Parsifal excerpts. As is to be expected, the orchestra playing is sumptuous; the beautifully burnished sound of this impeccable ensemble giving us delicately modulated balances from the sweeping strings to the meticulous brass, woodwinds and percussion. This CD is a handsome addition to any collection and is highly recommended.

Arthaus Musik, distributed by Naxos, have recently released two DVD disks featuring Claudio Abbado. One, from a 1985 film by Norbert Beilharz, documents the rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem with soloists Samuel Ramey (bass), Peter Dvorsky and Chris Merritt (tenors), Lucia Valentini Terrani (mezzo) and Monserrat Caballe and Cecilia Gasdia (sopranos). The orchestra and choir is that of La Scala.

This absorbing DVD traces the evolution of the Requiem as Abbado rehearses the soloists initially with piano accompaniment and eventually with full orchestra. There are scenes where Abbado coaxes and eventually convinces the reluctant Valentini Terrani to make changes in her vocal approach. Especially impressive is how the camera switches back and forth from piano to full orchestra whilst maintaining the sweep and flow of the music.

One gets another perspective of this fascinating musician with another Arthaus Musik DVD, “Claudio Abbado, a portrait by Paul Smaczny.” Here he is rehearsing and performing with the Berlin Philharmonic, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1995. These DVDs reveal a fascinating insight into his working methods. The immense respect of the orchestras for him is readily evident. Different points of interpretation are discussed and he is not averse to suggestions from the orchestra. It is a democratic process but with one final arbitrator.#

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