Abbado Celebrated In Dresden Concert He Was To Lead

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Dresden's Frauenkirche during the Claudio Abbado memorial concert.  (Concert photos by Oliver Killig)
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Dresden’s Frauenkirche during the Claudio Abbado memorial concert.
(Concert photos by Oliver Killig)
By George Loomis

DRESDEN – When Jan Vogler, intendant of the Dresden Music Festival, booked Claudio Abbado for a concert this month, he understandably thought he had scored a coup. The great conductor had not appeared in Dresden since 1981 and severely limited appearances anywhere in recent years because of ill health.

A concert set to be led by Claudio Abbado became a memorial event.
A concert set to be led by Claudio Abbado became a memorial event.

Following Abbado’s death in January, Vogler chose to give a memorial concert on the originally-scheduled date of June 9, and to that end engaged the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a 17-year-old ensemble that grew out of the Mahler Youth Orchestra, which Abbado founded in 1986 and led dozens of times. For a conductor, Vogler turned to Daniele Gatti, one of today’s leading Italian conductors and, like Abbado, a native of Milan.

In the event, the concert held in the Frauenkirche, which reopened in 2005 after being literally reconstructed from rubble, featured a composer with whom Abbado was closely identified, Mahler; a composer with whom Abbado was not particularly identified, but with whose music he showed much affinity, Wagner; and a work that, at the time of his death, Abbado had planned to record, Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”).

Daniele Gatti conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Dresden.
Daniele Gatti conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Dresden.

The Mahler portion consisted of four well-known and highly affecting songs, three from the Rückert Lieder and “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which serves as the fourth movement of the Second Symphony, all movingly sung by mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier. The charming “Liebst du um Schönheit” is the least philosophically profound of the four, but Meier, in handsome voice, brought out its underlying current of melancholy. Her expressive legato phrases, along with stirring playing from the brass, emphasized the hopefulness of “Urlicht,” a song about the afterlife.

The brass was a bit too assertive in the final stanza of “Um Mitternacht,” but otherwise Gatti provided sensitive support in all of the songs and the eerie sense of mystery of “Um Mitternacht” came through. The final song of the group was emotionally shattering, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” with its lonely vision of one who feels dead to the world. Meier’s floated phrases in the final stanza were especially moving, as was Gatti’s treatment of the postlude, in which the song’s haunting melody is gently passed from English horn to violins. The acoustic of the Frauenkirche, while resonant, is not as reverberant as that of many churches and allowed one to appreciate Meier’s fine diction, at least from a seat on the main floor.

René Pape and Gatti after performing 'Wotan's Farewell.'
René Pape and Gatti after performing Wotan’s Farewell.

Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walküre, with the bass René Pape as soloist, shifted the mood to a more heroic one. Pape brought to the music the firm tone and authority we expect from him, but his decision to use a score – a surprising one, since he has sung Wotan in staged performances in recent years – detracted from his expressive thrust. Still, there were touching moments, such as his tender singing of the final words addressed to his daughter, Brünnhilde, “So küsst er die Gottheit von dir!” Pape was assertive in summoning the god Loge to prepare the magic fire, but elsewhere did not sound in his best voice, which sometimes lost focus.

The concert ended on an exuberant note with the Schumann. In the majestic first movement, robustly conducted by Gatti, one noted how the Frauenkirche acoustic tended to capture and blend the music without a significant loss in sweep or clarity. Gatti brought out many details of the work memorably.  The fourth movement, marked “Feierlich,” with its noble, organic flow, seemed particularly apt as a memorial to Abbado. Still, one appreciated the buoyant touch Gatti brought to the final movement. Indeed, the concert’s contrasting moods and emotions seemed quite right for the occasion.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.