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Claudio ABBADO
Hearing the Silence – a film by Paul Smaczny.
PCM Stereo. 16:9 anamorphic. PAL. Format: DVD 5 Region Code 0 (Worldwide).
TDK DVD DV-DOCABB 1053279 [67'00]




This documentary is a model of its kind. Centring on one of the major living conductors, it exudes style and panache – not to mention sensitivity.

Paul Smaczny is an expert at creating a mood with ne'er a gimmick in sight. The opening passages of the Introduction present a simply wonderful poem by Hölderlin against dawn scenes on a (German?) lake. The sounds of the music of Luigi Nono (Prometeo), a composer so long associated with Abbado, provide more atmosphere than any commissioned film-music ever could.

The move to Abbado conducting Dvořák 'New World' (slow movement) serves to highlight the best in both pieces. We see Abbado, old, using a minimum of gestures. Later, he rehearses, affectionate yet objective, speaking sometimes over the music, sometimes using a look. And there is humour there, too. In the Scherzo he corrects a rhythms and adds 'und zusammen, vielleicht' ('and together, perhaps') with a most appealing smile. He is first among equals, that much is clear.

Taking us through this journey of Abbado's life is the actor Bruno Ganz, a friend of Abbado's. Snippets of interviews abound, mainly from players from the Berliner Philharmoniker and other orchestras associated with Abbado - who, after all, are the ones that know - but also with Daniel Harding, looking extremely undergraduate-ish. Players featured include Albrecht Mayer (principal oboe, BPO) Wolfram Christ (viola, Lucerne Festival Orchestra) and Kolya Blacher (concertmaster, Lucerne).

Perhaps the most memorable moments in the film, musically, come with black-and-white footage of Abbado conducting Bruckner's Symphony No. 1 (yes, the first one – well, sort of) with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1958. It is electric, Abbado's small but expressive beat galvanising the players to give their all. And to go with this is a similarly black-and-white interview with Abbado in which he tells of his earlier days, when himself and Zubin Mehta joined the chorus to gain experience. Some Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms posing ensemble difficulties that Abbado patiently works on. The conductor mentions his year with Bernstein before coming to Vienna.

Other aspects of Abbado's work are of course highlighted. His work with young people, explicitly in the guise of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, is well known and here he is, rehearsing Mahler's Ninth, evidently relaxed and enjoying the contact with youth.

It is Kolya Blacher who talks about the transition from silence to sound as a place in its own right, and one that takes on special significance with Abbado. Of course there is also post-performance silence, a phenomenon explicitly demonstrated on the DVD by footage of a Brahms German Requiem. Maybe he learned all that from the Master, Bernstein ... but it is there, wherever it comes from.

Amongst the other excerpts we are privileged to be exposed to are a simply superb Elektra and part of Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra. Also notably present are Beethoven’s Ninth (BPO, May 2000) and part of the now-famous and excellent Lucerne La mer.

Towards the end of the film we hear a radio announcement of Abbado's decision to leave Berlin; players from his orchestra speak of their shock. By this time Abbado clearly had a strong relationship with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

We are lucky to be able to enjoy such an in-depth portrait of Abbado. There is no great 'dwelling' on his illness, more a celebration of what he is and has been. Personally I cannot bring myself to refer to him as a 'great' conductor, but he is clearly an important one and one that, perhaps, sits on the fringes of greatness; which is more than most conductors can claim these days.

Colin Clarke




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