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PROMS 2002

PROM 44: Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Martha Argerich (pf), Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Claudio Abbado, RAH, 22nd August 2002 (MB)

Claudio Abbado has always been one of the most compelling conductors of his generation, at times producing concerts of such brilliance no other conductor seems able to hold a candle to him. This superb Prom was an example of that, the quality quite stunning, and even more so when one sees just how frail Abbado has become. But there is frailty and there is frailty and Abbado is, if anything, more volatile now than since the 1960s and 1970s when he produced music of rare intensity. Dylan Thomas’ lines about ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ seem utterly meaningful for this remarkable conductor. But there are signs that he is clearly very ill. He is, for example, increasingly conducting with a score (only La Mer was conducted without one) although he hardly, if ever, looks at it. At times during the Bartok he simply forgot to turn the pages so entranced was he in the music making.

And what music making. The players of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester clearly adore playing for their Music Director and they rewarded him with not just some of the most precise playing I have heard this year, but also some of the most sheerly magical. Virtuosity was effortless but what impressed most was the innate musicality of what they played. The jazz inflections of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto were as fine as any I have heard, the impressionism of Debussy’s La Mer scopulate, as if each player had turned his instrument into an artist’s brush. A lack of interaction in some of the best symphony orchestras is here replaced by each player listening and responding to their colleagues. Woodwind particularly (and noticeably a pair of magnificent flutes in the Debussy) achieve a level of vocal expressivity one normally associates with orchestras who play a great deal of opera. To find it in a youth orchestra, even one to this degree of excellence, is remarkable.

Although this orchestra is made up of players from all over Europe its sound is predominantly a central European one, reflecting perhaps the greater number of German players in it. Strings have a very rounded, full-bodied sound and even if Abbado did increase the number of players (12 basses in all three works, for example) the transparency of his conducting made the orchestra seem smaller than it actually was. The orchestral hegemony of some orchestras, where some sections are more strident than others, simply does not exist in this orchestra so clearly delineated is the sound, which so ripely rises from the stage.

This was perhaps most clear in Bartok’s still incredible Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). Musically, it is a quite staggering work and these young players made it sound more so. The opening ghostly fugue was almost skeletal in its beauty, but they and Abbado gave it such sinuous textures it became more and more fleshed out as the movement developed. With the two string orchestras playing in perfect unison the polyphony was richly layered. The fast allegro brought incandescent imagery as each orchestra shadowed the other; the adagio became a glittering movement of shimmering tremolandos and naked percussiveness. The finale, with its East European folksiness so wonderfully characterised, alternated between blistering string figurations and gaunt, expressive percussion. Played and conducted with such brilliance it proved a spellbinding experience.

Martha Argerich’s playing of Ravel’s G major concerto was fabulous, and no more so than in an exceptional reading of the Adagio assai which was underpinned by a ravishing intimacy. Dynamically, her playing had a spectrum of colour and clarity which dazzled, and the sheer magnetism of the opening solo line had such magical beauty it proved genuinely hypnotic. If at times her playing can be cool in this work here it came across as intensely atmospheric and the contrast between the work’s central beauty and its outer virility were beautifully captured. The orchestra accompanied her superlatively – with exquisite woodwind shrieking like birds in the outer movements and the strings offering an opulent backdrop.

Debussy’s La Mer proved to be even more exceptional. This was such an evocative and graphic performance one could almost feel the spray coming from the orchestra. Again, what impressed most was the woodwind – with flutes (Jérémie Fevre, and Alvaro Octavio Diaz) mesmerising in their tone. Rarely can this music have been played with such beauty either, the long lines spun out with an almost silken abandon. Massed strings were also superlative, noticeably on the lower strings where the luminous colouring proved to be so transparent as to suggest a single body rather than sixty individual players. Melodies were floated with such consummate skill – especially on muted trumpets or the fabulously toned cor anglais at the opening – that this literally did seem as if it was a performance being composed at that moment. It is rare that this work springs surprises – but Abbado did constantly. It was not just that he flawlessly shaped every phrase, not just that he balanced the textures so perfectly that every inner detail was heard. What he did was to make the work grow in an unpredictable way, and it was that which made it sound so fresh and so spontaneous. It was an extraordinary performance.

After three stunning performances it seemed churlish to ask for more (although admittedly the orchestra wanted more as well as they stamped their feet along with the promenaders until Abbado duly returned to the podium). Their encore was the ‘Good Friday Music’ from Parsifal – and it was superbly played with diaphanous tone and bewildering beauty. It crowned a quite incredible, and unforgettable, evening of music making.

Marc Bridle

This concert is being broadcast again on Radio 3 on 26th August at 2pm.


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