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Posts Tagged ‘Claudio Abbado’

In less than an hour, tickets to Claudio Abbado’s three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska had been sold out.  Me and many other concert-goers would have been deeply frustrated, if the maestro and the Philharmonic had not offered more than a consolation prize: an extra concert as a tribute to Gustav Mahler, who died exactly 100 years ago in Vienna. Famous soloists were invited and the hall was almost completely packed.

The program’s first item was the adagio to the 10th Symphony (in Deryck Cooke’s edition), which is rightly regarded as Mahler’s visionary swansong. I cannot think of a more ideal interpreter of this music than Claudio Abbado – not only has he a vast experience with XXth century music and offered an impressively clear and consequent view of the score, but he did not fail to bring his heart to it. The various moods of this expressively wide-ranging piece were intensely shown to an audience mesmerized by the otherworldly sounds of a transfigured Berliner Philharmoniker. What glorious sounds! Being there is something one could tell his grandchildren about.

After a superlative experience such as this, the stakes were very high, even for Abbado himself. I am not saying that he would not be able to outdo himself in the Lied von der Erde, but the fact is that I am not sure if his choice of soloists, distinguished as they are, was right for this music in that venue. Well, this is not exactly right: Jonas Kaufmann is, of course, a very good choice for the tenor part. Although he was not in his absolutely best day (the lachrymose attacks inexistent before the Met’s Siegmunds persist and his attempts of mezza voce were more into the falsetto field), the liquid quality of his high register is praiseworthy. The excruciatingly demand of heroic acuti was supplied roundly, richly and forcefully. I have very good and fond memories of Johan Botha in Munich back in 2007 (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic) and I still think that this music ideally requires a more dramatic and brighter voice in order to allow the conductor to really unleash his orchestra. But Kaufmann’s sense of line and cleanliness of phrasing are worth the trade-off.

Back in 2007 in Munich, I also had the opportunity to see Anne Sofie von Otter in that piece. Back then I had already found her unsuited to this piece. Four years haven’t made the situation better – hers is a helplessly light voice for it. Of course, her good taste, clear diction, exquisite pianissimi are welcome, but she was often overshadowed by the orchestra, sounded uncomfortable in her low register and caused the conductor to reign in his orchestra. This fact alone made the performance sound restrained and a bit cold as a whole. A conductor as Abbado knows how to play things to his advantage – with very clear but restricted sound from the strings, pride of place was given to exquisite solos from his woodwind section (Emmanuel Pahud deserves particular mention) and French Horn players, a sense of chamber music was achieved. However, Abschied  requires far more emotional generosity, more contrast, more sense of an all-embracing orchestral picture in the “tutti”.  Beautiful as it all was, this should not be Abbado’s and maybe also Jonas Kaufmann’s last “word” about it.

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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.

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