Abbado In Berlin: The Last Concert, A Lasting Imprint

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Claudio Abbado – The Last Concert. Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music; Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique. Berlin Philharomonic with Deborah York (soprano), Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano), Women of the Bavarian Radio Chorus. Audio version on two CDs (97 min). Video on Blu-ray disc with documentaries “Claudio Abbado in Berlin – The First Year,” and “Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker Remember Claudio Abbado.” (Total Time: 182 min) BPHR 160081.

By Paul Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — When Claudio Abbado, who had succeeded Herbert von Karajan as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1990, resigned shortly after undergoing stomach cancer surgery in 2000, it seemed that his illustrious career had come to an end; instead, he regrouped and continued giving concerts, albeit fewer, for the next 14 years. Although he could no longer carry the burden of being a full-time music director, Abbado (1933-2014) made annual appearances with the orchestra. The last, in May 2013, is commemorated in this special edition boxed set issued by the orchestra itself. Abbado died Jan. 20, 2014, at the age of 80.

Claudio Abbado, leading the Berlin Philharmonic in an outdoor concert in 2008. (Monika Rittershaus)

Abbado led the Berlin Philharmonic in an outdoor concert in 2008. (Monika Rittershaus)

While Abbado had a close association with the Berlin Philharmonic over many decades — he conducted the orchestra for the first time in 1966 — he also held major positions with many other organizations: head of La Scala (1969-86) and of the Vienna State Opera (1986-91); principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony (1982-85) and chief conductor of the London Symphony (1979-87). He also had a special interest in young musicians and started two orchestras — the European Community Youth Orchestra (1978) and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (1988) — to give young people an opportunity to hone their skills to the highest possible level.

When he stepped down from the Berlin Philharmonic, Abbado drastically reduced his schedule and focused his attention on the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, created for him in 2003 and comprising players devoted to him. Its ranks included members of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic,  Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and many others, with solo players of the stature of cellist Natalia Gutman, clarinetist Sabine Meyer, trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich, and members of the Hagen and Alban Berg quartets. For several weeks in August each year, the musicians assembled in Lucerne, giving some unforgettable concerts under Abbado’s direction. Fortunately, many of those performances are documented on CDs and DVDs, with the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner among the most frequently performed compositions.

Abbado was among the most self-effacing — if that is not a contradiction in terms — of conductors. To succeed as a conductor, one must assert oneself and demonstrate the ability to command respect and attention from a large body of musicians. Abbado certainly had the required leadership qualities, but the exceptional results he achieved were gotten not through verbal harassment or charm, but by preparation and a gift for conveying what he wanted through gesture. Musicians who had never played under Abbado before were often perplexed by his rehearsal methods, unsure of what he wanted because he spoke so little. That said, over time most were won over by his approach and came to trust that his musical integrity was impeccable and that together they could achieve extraordinary results. As Berlin Philharmonic flutist Emmanuel Pahud put it, “I always felt very safe in his hands. His inspiration, his gestures, his very facial expression even, when he conducts, it’s all the invitation I need to make music.”

Berlin Phil box set - Abbado's final concert March 2013

The box set includes CD audio, Blu-ray video, and lavish documentary material.

In the documentaries included in this boxed set, one musician after another sings Abbado’s praises but rarely points to what he said in rehearsals; rather, they talk about the man’s singular ability to use gesture to elicit great playing from his musicians. In interviews, Abbado was a tough nut to crack, rarely revealing anything about his craft or about his personal life. While Leonard Bernstein was happy to talk for hours about music, theater, politics, linguistics, or almost anything else, and Simon Rattle has a rare gift for articulating the most arcane aspects of life and music, Abbado seemed ill at ease discussing anything at all. There are several examples of this uneasiness in the documentaries. As far as one can tell, Abbado was fluent in many languages, but eloquent in none.

Young conductors could learn a great deal from studying videos of him on the podium. Abbado did not have a conventional stick technique. Although he rarely beat time using patterns that are part of every conductor’s education, he was very clear in what he wanted, not just with the finest orchestras he most often conducted but also with the youth orchestras he created.

Even in his last years, when his health was fragile, Abbado’s gestures were highly animated. If one looks carefully, however, one comes to realize that, while both his arms were in almost constant motion, the movement was confined to a pretty small area, similar to the rectangular strike zone in baseball, but even smaller. The rest of his body scarcely moves at all. While Bernstein often appeared to be acting out the music down to the last detail, with a movie actor’s range of facial gestures and gymnastic leaps in the air, Abbado was virtually immobile except for his arms. In our own time, Andris Nelsons would be a good example of an anti-Abbado conductor, with a vast repertoire of facial expressions, arm-flailing, and knee-bends.

Claudio Abbado, in rehearsal, was a man of few words. (Priska Ketterer, Lucerne Festival, 2005)

Abbado in rehearsal was a man of few words. (Priska Ketterer, Lucerne Festival, 2005)

The close observer of Abbado’s technique will also notice that his arm gestures are not only unusually graceful but that he studiously avoids emphasis on strong beats, especially the first beat of the bar. If the music calls for a strong accent, Abbado trusts that his musicians will give it to him without any aggressive chopping motion on his part. Often he will give the musicians the opposite of what the music would seem to require; instead of a strong downbeat, he will make a sweeping motion with his left hand.

Apart from stick technique and gestures, Abbado was renowned for his preparation and his respect for what the composer wrote. Before conducting any score, he immersed himself in books about the composer and his life and studied the autograph scores whenever possible. Conductors such as Mahler and Stokowski would not hesitate to make “improvements” in the scores they conducted, and Toscanini often did the same thing. Not Abbado. If the composer didn’t write it, he didn’t play it, and that included tempo and dynamic markings and orchestration. In this performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, however, Abbado did allow himself one small bit of embellishment: The score specifies two harps, but he used four. Not a bad idea to improve the balance, and it is certainly exciting to see four harpists hard at work in the second movement, “Un bal.” 

Some listeners may find Abbado’s performance of Symphonie fantastique less powerful and exciting than those by other conductors. Charles Munch, for example, often raised the rafters with the “March to the Scaffold,” and always concluded with a Dionysian headlong sprint at the end. A strong case could certainly be made for this approach, knowing the composer’s personality and the subject matter of the piece, but Abbado refuses to go beyond what is written in the score. There is no dynamic louder than ff (fortissimo) in the “March to the Scaffold,” and Berlioz frequently indicates only f (forte) in some of the noisier sections. As for the ending, Berlioz writes not molto accelerando, but rather animando un poco (becoming a little more animated), and while the brass are given a ff marking, the two timpanists have only f.

Similarly, in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music, Abbado is careful to keep the dynamics within the range of what the composer indicated in the score and what would have been normal in 1843, the time of the first performance, and he does not drag out the tempo of the Nocturne. Some of us, myself included, prefer a slower tempo to allow time for shaping the horn phrases, but Abbado probably found that approach anachronistic and too much of a good thing. On the plus side, one hears the most exquisite detail — often missed in other performances — and the most expressive wind and string playing one is ever likely to hear in this music. The give and take between musicians is chamber music at the highest level.

This deluxe boxed set is a fine tribute to Abbado both for the excellent orchestral performances on CD and DVD, and for the DVD documentaries that illustrate the high regard in which the conductor was held by the members of the Berlin Philharmonic. “Claudio Abbado in Berlin — The First Year” also serves to remind us that Abbado’s appointment in Berlin coincided with the coming down of the Berlin Wall, signaling another beginning of a new era.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.

Date posted: May 16, 2016

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