Almost all tickets for three evenings sold in a couple of hours – Claudio Abbado’s mystique is more alive than ever, especially in what regards his collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although many a detractor would blame the Italian maestro for the loss of Karajan’s deluxe sonic perspective, I reckon that, in hindsight, the nay-sayers may be shedding tears for the glory of days past. In a few words, among all concerts in the last twelve months, this was simply the one in which I could understand why the Berliner Philharmoniker is THE Berliner Philharmoniker. Until today, I had found it a very good orchestra living of its reputation rather than living up to the competition with rival formations even in the immediate vicinity, such as the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin, which seems incapable of producing a routine performance. Under the baton of Abbado, the BPO has an entirely different sound: glittering, slim-toned strings that produce cantabile even in the most awkward phrases, round-toned brass, expressive woodwind solos in the context of the most perfectly balanced ensemble: worlds apart from the rather purpose- and shapeless loudness sold as “punch” by the present chief conductor.
Before you ask me if I was entirely satisfied with this evening’s concert, I tell you that this is secondary to the fact that, regardless of WHAT was being played, the way HOW the orchestra played the pieces in this rather strange program takes pride of place in assessing the whole experience. To start with, I do not think that the orchestral arrangements of Schubert Lieder was a sensible choice of program. The tessitura in these songs was settled by the composer with the idea that the singer would have only a piano to deal with, allowing him or her to explore some less powerful areas in his or her range. In the orchestral version, cutting through the orchestra around the register shifts in the mezzo soprano voice proved to be tricky even to a technically accomplished singer such as Christianne Stotijn. Gretchen am Spinnrard was particularly challenging – the Dutch mezzo’s voice is not particularly large and she had to apply a little bit more pressure to her tone, which finally sounded anything but young or lovely, and the anxiety seemed to come rather from the singing itself than from the expression of Goethe’s text. Abbado has a vast experience with singers and helped her throughout Berlioz’s bombastic orchestration of Erlkönig, in which her characterization of father, child and phantasm did not truly came through into the auditorium. The choice of Nacht und Träume only seemed to confirm my impression – over the background of an orchestra reduced to pianissimo, Stotijn could finally relax and let us hear the natural warmth and smoothness of her voice. I bet she could do even better with the original piano accompaniment. Maybe a naturally larger-voiced singer with a more solid middle register could have done the trick – but why bother if we can always hear Schubert the way Schubert wanted it to be?
The Song of the Wood-Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder was introduced by the orchestral transition from Waldemar’s last song to his beloved Tove – and Abbado treated the audience to a universe of exquisite, sensuous and multicolored sonorities. Unlike many conductors, he never lets himself be overwhelmed in this music and treats the complex rhythmic and harmonic structures with extreme cleanliness and organization. Compared to this passage in his 1995 complete recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, I found today’s performance even more coherent and forward-moving. Christianne Stotijn had her underpowered moments, but when she find space to gather her resources, she produced some interesting effects. What is beyond doubt is her dramatic commitment, but I have the impression her voice lacks volume for this repertoire.
One would have to wait for the end of the intermission to discover the real Schwerpunkt of this evening’s concert. Brahms’s Rinaldo, a cantata for tenor and male chorus, is anything but popular, and Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording with René Kollo for Deutsche Grammophon is hardly the ideal invitation to get acquainted with the piece (Abbado’s old recording with a not-entirely comfortable James King is currently out-of-print in many countries). That said, if you had first met the work this evening, you would probably find it a neglected masterpiece. The Berlin Philharmonic played it with Beethovenian intensity without ever trespassing the limits of Classical shapeliness, something I guess Brahms himself would have appreciated. In Abbado’s hands, the score oozed energy allied with elegance – and the forces available were simply ideal. Beside the gleaming orchestral sound, the combined forces of the men from the Rundfunkchor Berlins and the Chorus of the Bayerische Rundfunk offered exemplary tonal homogeneity and clarity in the delivery of the text and, last but not least, the soloist for the difficult tenor part could not be better. Although Jonas Kaufmann still has to deepen his acquaintance with the piece (and I am not saying this because he had the score in his hands), there is simply no-one who could sing this music as beautifully and stylishly as he does. His dark-hued tenor is admirably flexible and never lets legato go, even in some particularly contrived turns of phrase, and climactic top notes resounded in the Philharmonie without any hint of effort. I have no doubt that, should this performance be released on CD, it will be a reference for this piece.