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